“Are you registered to vote at your current address?” This question echoes across the mall during passing time. Although the phrase is a little tired, the person it comes from is usually energetic and engaged. The same words describe the effort of the political organizations that tirelessly register students to vote. Day after day, rain or shine, at least one volunteer or employee stands on the mall rosey-cheeked and curious about your registration status. One of the most memorable groups on campus for their bunny ears and pink t-shirts, the nonpartisan Forward Montana Foundation has registered some 3,000 voters since 2010 and hopes to hit 10,000 by the end of the year. Their goal demonstrates a commendable effort to promote democracy by engaging and educating students in the political system.
The efforts of the political groups on campus look especially commendable knowing that voter suppression laws, which make it harder to register to vote, have been popping up in increasing numbers and strength all over the country. This year alone, 14 states tightened their voter registration laws, enforcing strict photo ID regulations and restricting registration to a specific period before election day. Since 2010, a total of 20 states have restricted voting rights. Thankfully Montana is still not one of those states, although online voter registration is still prohibited.
Voter suppression laws are justified by conservatives as prevention against voter fraud. However, the Brennan Center for Justice claims that voter fraud is scarce if existent at all in our country. So, why all the new legislation? Many believe that these laws are aimed at discouraging groups, traditionally more liberal groups like minorities, students and the poor, from voting. These groups tend to change addresses more, which can put them in different voting districts and force them to re-register more frequently. By making it more difficult for them to vote, these laws dissuade these groups from participating in politics. Regardless of their political stance, the entire student demographic is being affected. Given the national movement towards restricting voter rights, it is truly remarkable to have so many opportunities to register to vote on campus.
If you are inspired to exercise your right to vote but unsure how to proceed, the political groups on campus offer plenty of resources to overcome the confusion. The next time someone inquires if you are registered to vote, use the opportunity to ask to sign up for an absentee ballot. This means the ballot arrives to your house by mail and you avoid taking time off work, driving somewhere and generally making the whole voting process more difficult. An absentee ballot also eliminates the need to know about all the candidates before voting because you can look up the candidates you have not heard about while voting. If a couple candidates do not sound familiar, check out www.votesmart.org, which gives the skinny on everyone running for office in the United States. For more locally pertinent information, you can download “The Great American Voter Guide,” distributed by Forward Montana and found online at their website.
Millennials, those in the 19-35 age range, comprise 30 percent of the voting population. However, in 2012 only about half of that populace made it to the polls. This number does not do justice to our potential power as a generation. By trying to engage and educate voters, groups like Forward Montana and their partisan compatriots service the community by providing a means to participate in democracy. They also take the confusion out of the voting process. Their work is a wonderful contrast to the efforts of many states to stifle voter activity. So with a storm of clipboard-brandishing-do-gooders once again upon our campus, why not take advantage of their resources? It does not take long to stop and make sure your address is updated. You can pat yourself on the back for actively participating in your democracy, even if it is just to keep that rosey cheeked volunteer from asking again.