By Angeline Vuong, Assistant Director for Public Service Programs, Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service & the Common Good, University of San Francisco
In May 1964, the Civil Rights Act was under attack by segregationists in the U.S. Congress. Three young men, Andrew Goodman and his two friends, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, went to Meridian, Mississippi, for Freedom Summer* to register African Americans to vote. They were killed by the Ku Klux Klan and their story galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today, in 2018, we find ourselves in a modern-day civil rights struggle, as the voices of students, women and communities of color continue to be disenfranchised at the ballot box. Across the country, there is a resurgence of white supremacy, anti-immigrant sentiment, the gutting of key civil rights protections and massive voter suppression tactics.
Barriers to voting prohibit our most vulnerable voices from being heard, valued and included. We know from research that both young people and people of color have been historically disenfranchised during the election process. Obstacles still exist for young people who find that the registration process to vote is confusing and intimidating. Students express that they do not vote because they think their vote does not matter; they don’t like the candidates; or they believe that the process is stacked against people with views like their own.
Equal access to voting matters still to this day. That’s why USF Votes, a voter engagement initiative led by the University of San Francisco’s (USF) Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, is more important than ever. As campus partners with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, we honor Goodman’s legacy by defending participatory democracy, inclusive of everyone, where the fundamental right to vote is diligently preserved.
Now in its second year, the USF Votes initiative trains, educates, and empowers students to overcome those barriers to the voting process. Institutionalizing voter engagement as part of the USF culture is key—this ensures that voting is an integral part of the student experience by cultivating life-long civic participants. Although the nation is growing increasingly diverse, voting participation rates skew older, white and wealthier. As the third most ethnically diverse campus in the United States, we have students who represent an array of experiences and backgrounds, who are actively engaged in the world—and changing it. Their voices need to be counted.
A post-Millennial wave of newly eligible voters seek to change the national conversation on issues of great importance to them, e.g. college access and affordability, climate change, homelessness and housing. Across the country, primary elections are showing that people care about their representatives—from local school boards to the Senate—who reflect their values, interests, hopes and dreams. This public visibility, and lobbying activity by young people, highlights the important role that young voters could play this November and beyond. As the largest voting bloc in U.S. history, young people are an increasingly important part of the electorate.
From the first moment that students step foot on campus at orientation, they know that the spirit of civic engagement is part of the USF experience. We partner with Student Life, Residential Halls, the Office of the Registrar, Athletics, Greek Life and other campus departments and divisions to ensure that every eligible student is registered to vote and prepared to make an informed decision on Election Day.
This year, the USF Votes campus team is working to help peers understand that registering to vote is a simple process. Through messaging and communications, they are highlighting the urgency of this election; helping voters identify the types of representatives who reflect what they value and care about is something key to our strategy. In addition, our USF Votes team collaborates with student organizations and other leaders to build a cadre of ambassadors who can register their peers and build the momentum leading up to November 6 and after. By familiarizing ourselves with mail-in ballot regulations for every state (along with absentee deadlines), our USF Votes team is ready to assist students who might find the process challenging and complex.
There’s no off season for USF Votes. Every day is a chance for us to maximize voter participation and civic engagement at our university. Building a voting culture is key in this election for us, especially when we have a wealth of diverse students from various backgrounds. Our mission and passion for social justice requires all of our voices to be heard, especially at the polls. USF Votes serves to mitigate inequalities and get students from different economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds to be heard at the polls and participate fully in the political process. Our initiative through the Leo T. McCarthy Center at USF is at the forefront of student voter engagement efforts. When we all vote, we can change the world from here. 2018 is a big year for our country. Let’s make sure all of our voices are heard.
*Freedom Summer was a volunteer campaign in June 1964 to register African American voters in Mississippi. Click here to learn more.