Fighting voter apathy

Each election cycle, we hear the same tired lines about the youth vote (or supposed lack thereof): “college kids are apathetic,” “young people just won’t vote,” etc. If student voters were nonexistent or unimportant, elections officials wouldn’t expend so much effort trying to block them from registering to vote in local elections and making sure that polling locations are not placed on college campuses.

Across the nation, students face Florida-style voter intimidation in the form of lengthy and intrusive registration questionnaires given only to young voters, misinformation claiming that students will have to pay state income or automobile taxes in order to vote locally, threats that financial aid will be jeopardized, and arbitrary challenges at the voting booth.

Students face these Jim Crow tactics even as our elders ask young voters to take on a larger role in politics. Local party bosses use these tactics knowing that in tight races, any block of votes – including student votes – can change the outcome of an election. This is true both at the local and at the national level – in 2000, the presidential election was decided by fewer than 7,500 votes in six states, including Oregon. In two of them, the margin was well under 1,000.

As two elected officials who only recently graduated from college, we can say from experience that when organized and motivated, even in the face of formidable obstacles, students can bring true progressive change to government. Students turned out in droves to help elect us to the City Councils of Madison, Wis., and Providence, R.I., thereby sending a message that they wanted to be active in their communities.

During the upcoming presidential election you too will have the opportunity to shake up our broken political system – not by ignoring its realities and casting a protest vote for a candidate who cannot win, but by helping to choose the ultimate victor. As evidenced by the 2000 vote totals, the power to do this is within the grasp of the nation’s student population. Oregon’s students live in a swing state and will have the opportunity to vote in an unusually close election. On your campus alone, the votes cast by students – or the votes students fail to cast – could tip the balance.

As members of the Green Party, we recognize that John Kerry and the Democratic Party have tremendous failings. Former consumer advocate Ralph Nader sheds light on them and plays a crucial role as a corporate watchdog, but the best way to forward the causes he has championed is not to vote in support of his independent/Reform Party candidacy. Despite John Kerry’s serious failings, it is imperative that he win, because his presidency would be far superior to four more years under the right-wing Bush administration. Bush must lose and be prevented from doing further harm our environment, labor rights, civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights.

That will happen only if Kerry wins – meaning swing state progressives vote for Kerry.

Ideological idealism drives successful movements, but idealism that ignores practicality cannot forward ideals and can even be counterproductive in the struggle to realize them. Recognizing this, we’ve formed the committee and ask progressive students in swing states to support Kerry. We encourage those voting absentee in the remaining safe states, where the outcome of the presidential vote is obvious even today, to support the Green Party and its nominee, David Cobb.

We must vote in a manner that accounts for political realities. We live under a political system that is rigged against independents and third parties. We absolutely must change that, but it is a reality of the current mechanisms that swing state votes for a third party candidate will not aid in defeating the fascist Bush administration and could help yield four more years of tax cuts for the wealthy that starve state governments and force local tuition increases. This election is not a theoretical or academic exercise – real people’s lives are at stake. We cannot afford to treat our votes as acts of mere symbolic individual expression.

David Segal is Minority Leader of the Providence, R.I., City Council.

Austin King is an Alder in Madison, Wis.