Adapted from the new edition of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Persistence and Hope in Troubled Times. (Basic Books 2014, $18.99, www.theimpossible.org) See www.campuselect.org for the Campus Election Engagement Project.
We live in a time fraught with bad news. From the toll of violence and poverty to the escalating march of climate change, every week brings temptations to despair. Hope may actually be more beleaguered in the wake of a president who won the office in part by branding himself with it. Many have concluded that political participation has become a futile game.
For myself, I deal with potential despair by finding ways to act. And remembering that the doors to social change are never irrevocably closed, even in unimaginably difficult situations. Think of Nelson Mandela and his compatriots being told they would rot and die on Robben Island. Denied newspapers as a way of isolating them, they’d see a guard discard a newspaper he’d used to wrap his sandwich, and one of the prisoners would retrieve it, smuggle it under their shirt and, in a tiny coded script on toilet paper (the only paper they had), would circulate a story or headline that would give their compatriots courage.
The political challenges most of us face are more humble. But it’s easy to create self-fulfilling responses where we withdraw and leave the field to those who are only too happy to buy what remains of our democracy. And our actions do matter, including on Election Day. In 2004, I spent that day canvassing in Seattle, speaking with three people who’d have stayed home had I not contacted them: One forgot there was an election that day. Another couldn’t figure out how to still submit his absentee ballot. The third needed a ride to the polls. After three recounts, my gubernatorial candidate won by 133 votes. If my side had just a few less volunteers, or the other side a few more, Washington State would have had a different governor.
I’ve carried the lessons of that day while traveling to campuses to lecture on citizen engagement, and founding the national nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project in 2008. The project helps colleges and universities nationwide to assist their students in registering to vote, educating themselves on issues and candidates and showing up at the polls. I’d hoped it would make a modest impact, but we had no guarantees, and encountered plenty of obstacles. Yet by 2012, 750 campuses with a combined enrollment of 5.5 million students were engaging with our resources—a far greater reach than I’d ever anticipated.
After working solely in presidential years in 2008 and 2012, we’re now engaging students in midterm elections, where their participation drops precipitously. Between the 2008 and 2010 elections, student participation in Ohio, for instance, dropped from 70 percent to 22 percent, in Florida from 61 percent to 19 percent, in Wisconsin from 66 percent to 19 percent. So we ask schools we work with to take institutional responsibility for helping their students participate, whoever they choose to vote for. We pull together the best nonpartisan practices from schools throughout the country: Central Michigan University football players holding up registration cards at halftime while the Jumbotron flashes a registration link; students at Virginia Commonwealth University working with the tenant’s union of a nearby public housing project to register voters, help restore rights to former felons and arrange rides to the polls; Young Republicans and Young Democrats teaming up to engage their campuses, allowing them to discover that their opponents don’t always have horns. After distributing these examples and others, we challenge administrators and faculty to collaborate, break out of their academic silos and recognize that student electoral participation may be in their hands. We also remind them that if students vote when they’re young, they’re far more likely to continue, so their actions affect the future as well.