On June 7, 2022, I trekked through the pouring rain, umbrella in hand, on my third trip back to the Keeton Service Center, desperately hoping for the arrival of a large white envelope from a county office in New Jersey. As I entered the building, fingers crossed behind my back, the student helping me shook her head sadly and informed me that despite her best efforts, she still couldn’t find my absentee ballot. I thanked her for her time and assistance, and turned toward the door, dreading the fact that I would miss the first election I was eligible to vote in.
How did I get here, you might ask? Like all Cornellians, I lead a very busy life. Between the tumult of studying for finals, concluding my first year of college, packing up my freshman year dorm, moving into my summer housing and saying goodbye to my friends until the fall, requesting my absentee ballot fell lower and lower on my to-do list. While I had submitted my absentee request form to my county clerk by the deadline and confirmed that my ballot had been shipped, a convergence of factors deprived me of my ability to exercise my constitutionally granted right.
Considering my history of civic engagement and voting activism, missing my first election was even more saddening. In April 2020, I joined former first Lady Michelle Obama’s nonprofit organization When We All Vote, in their inaugural cohort of ambassador fellows, working with students around the nation to raise awareness and register voters for the year’s primary and general elections. Moreover, I spent this past summer on campus researching voting rights policy, legislation and Supreme Court cases through the inaugural class of Cornell’s Nexus Scholars Program.
Now, I write this not to criticize the service center employees, nor to assign blame to others, but to highlight the deep structural impediments to young people’s democratic participation, even amongst the most adept voters. Despite my experience, I still couldn’t vote, and I’m not alone. Our country’s current democratic infrastructure isn’t designed to accommodate young people, leaving us more likely to be discounted than our older societal counterparts.
In my research into our nation’s history of voting rights since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I discovered that there were many campaigns to lower the federal voting age from 21 to 18 after the implementation of the draft during WWII. In these initiatives, young people argued that if they were old enough to die for their country, at the very least they deserved the right to select its leaders. However, it wasn’t until the ratification of the 26th Amendment during the Nixon Administration in 1971 that this came to fruition. While young people tend to have a stronger activist and protest-oriented streak than older generations, we sometimes struggle to follow through at the ballot box, further contributing to our frustration with politics and desire for a more representative government.
In the present day, there is a myriad of reasons why young people have greater difficulty exercising their civic duties than older members of the population, but the one I find most injurious is our heightened geographic mobility. By the end of this year alone, I will have had four addresses: 1) my primary home address, 2) my freshman year housing, 3) my summer housing and 4) my sophomore year housing. In addition to making online shopping a hassle, these residential changes further burden already overworked and thin-stretched students. Consequently, registering to vote can appear daunting to those unfamiliar with the process, and when asked to list such information, students might opt to skip the registration process entirely.
When juxtaposed with the housing and location stability that many adults enjoy, it’s no wonder that our voter participation rates are so staggering. With the addition of on-campus polling places this year due to fierce student advocacy, voting will become a little easier for some Cornellians. However, since significant percentages of our domestic student population live outside of New York state, in order to participate in this year’s elections, they likely will have had to navigate the same absentee ballot request process that I struggled with.
As we approach the end of the 2022 election cycle, arguably one of the most consequential midterms in recent history, I implore all voters to familiarize themselves with the candidates and issues that matter to them, volunteer for campaigns, mobilize their friends and turn out to the polls to ensure that their vote counts. Your vote matters.
Shelby L. Williams is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. Comments can be sent to opinion@ cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.