Even Lil Jon is calling on folks to turn out and vote. The Rock the Vote video everyone is talking about is funny, with celebrities such as Lena Dunham and Whoopi Goldberg explaining why they turn out. Urging democratic involvement, however, has not always been a cause worthy of laughs and a silver grill. The reality is that protecting people’s right to vote has historically been bloody, violent and even murderous.
Fifty years ago this summer, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered not just for encouraging African Americans in the South to vote but also for working to protect that right. These three Americans paid the ultimate price trying to strengthen democracy and improve their world. Although the Constitution guarantees the right to vote, democracy depends on citizens to do so.
As student leaders of the UC Berkeley Public Service Center, we believe the work must continue and hope that students and citizens understand the power and importance of voting. Working with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, Sarah Funes is our campus Vote Everywhere Ambassador. She is working to increase on-campus voter participation. Her experience in Sojourn to the Past, a journey through the civil and voting rights movements’ most trying moments, showed her the energy and the devotion that has gone into ensuring voting equality.
Seeing that minority groups still face social injustices, right outside the place where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. took his last steps, Sarah was convinced that King’s work must live on. She continues to fight for advancement of the rights of women, Latinos and people with disabilities, encouraging all citizens to engage civically and vote for what they believe.
But you don’t need to journey through history to have a reason to vote. John Selfridge, the Public Service Center’s government and civil society facilitator, has worked as a firefighter and community leader. Motivating groups to act has shown him that change is possible.
We have seen the reality that everyone has a stake in his or her world. More importantly, we know that the world goes on whether people engage in democracy or not. We know that taking action — taking responsibility — strengthens communities.
As students and as voters, we have the opportunity to change society how we see fit. We are learned in theories of just, efficient and safe societies, and we are given the right to direct our world toward those goals. If we don’t turn out, society’s fate will be decided by those who do.
This is our problem: Many young people do not turn out. California youth — ages 18 to 24 — made up 14 percent of eligible voters, but two-thirds never turned out for the last general election in 2012; young people gave away 1.5 million chances to be heard.
Among its entire population, California has seen historically low voter turnout. Only 18 percent of registered voters turned out for the primary election four months ago. Our vote matters more than ever.
The election in November provides many reasons to turn out. The next California secretary of state will dictate who can vote and how campaigns can be funded. Statewide ballot measures will affect how much health insurance companies can charge (Prop-45) and whether some nonviolent crimes will be reduced to misdemeanors, affecting how many people we send to prison (Prop-47). Big changes will even be decided close to UC Berkeley.
“This will definitely be a turning point,” said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates to the New York Times, referring to the soda tax proposition that has made its way into the national spotlight. If passed, the tax will apply to all sweetened beverages, not just sodas, which are linked to social problems such as childhood obesity. Like taxes on tobacco products, this tax will work to reduce sweet-drink consumption.
Effects of the tax’s passage will be felt beyond Berkeley. A win against Big Soda would signal to rest of the country that voting matters — that vested interests can pour millions into defeating campaigns, but voters can win simply by turning out.
Everyone has an important reason to turn out. Turn out for your friends, your family and your world. Turn out for democracy.
For more information and to learn how to get involved, come to the Community Conversation on Oct. 16 (210 Wheeler Hall, 6 to 8 p.m.), register to vote online at registertovote.ca.gov/ by Oct. 20 and learn about what will be on our ballots at www.sos.ca.gov/elections/.
Sarah Funes and John Selfridge are student leaders at the UC Berkeley Public Service Center.