Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Adding Your Voice

by John Sirek, Civics Program Director

In the recent State of the Union address, President Obama said…. "as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It’s a word that … captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations…it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story."

Adding our voices to that story, at the ballot box and in our communities, is a right and responsibility we all share. However, low voter participation, especially among youth, has been a fixture of American politics for years.

The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship, recently released data comparing Illinois Millennials (18-29 year olds) with their national counterparts. The data revealed that Illinois Millennials ranked 30th among their peers in voter registration and 47th for voting in local elections. The good news is there are many efforts underway to reverse these statistics. The Center for Civic Engagement at Northwestern University, a grantee of the McCormick Foundation, is making voter registration more accessible to students through its NU Votes program. The program gives first-year students opportunities to register to vote during orientation week and throughout the school year. NU Votes has proven to be quite successful, registering nearly 95 percent of their first-year students in 2012.

Due to the program’s success, Northwestern has begun promoting this model to other schools through an initiative called UVote Project. Last year, UVote worked with eight universities, five in Illinois, to register over 9,000 students before the last presidential election.

Programs like UVote are making a real difference in Illinois and throughout the country, but there is still more work to be done. The bottom line is our democracy cannot thrive if our citizens do not have the knowledge and interest to maintain it. If we fail to energize the next generation of citizens democracy itself will be at risk.

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