Silencing a Diverse, Youth Generation | Opinion

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which was ratified on July 1, 1971, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote. Yet, as we honor the expansion of this American freedom, extremist politicians are actively working overtime to make it harder to vote.

This is more than an obvious, direct assault on American democracy. It is also a calculated move to silence the voices and strip the current and future power of an increasingly diverse electorate fueled by the youth generation.

Our country is growing racially and ethnically more diverse. According to long-term demographic trends, 100 percent of growth in our country is taking place in communities of color and is especially pronounced among young Americans. In fact, youth under the age of 18 mark the beginning of a majority-minority America.

This demographic shift combined with the sheer size of Generation Z and the millennial generation means we are on the verge of what Brookings Institution demographer William Frey referred to as a "diversity explosion." The waves of this blast will touch every aspect of our society, including politics, with this year's 17-year-olds ushering in a new, majority-minority America becoming eligible to vote in 2022.

Two distinctly diverse generations—millennials and Generation Z—already comprise roughly 40 percent of the electorate giving them enormous power in our democracy. This power will only grow and diversify as members of Generation Z turn 18 and become eligible to vote.

Keeping this in mind throws the stakes of anti-voting extremism into a new light. If this current wave of voter suppression succeeds, it will be young people of color—the future majority of our country—who will be disproportionately harmed.

This is not by accident.

The anti-voting movement is strongest in states where a younger, significantly more diverse population will soon outnumber an older, much whiter population.

The cultural generation gap describes the different beliefs, attitudes and actions between an older, whiter population and a younger, more diverse population based on their vastly different lived experiences. In the political arena, this plays out in sharp, contrasting views on issues and a competition for priorities.

A quick measure of the cultural generation gap is the difference between the percentage of seniors and the percentage of children who are white. In 2010, the national gap was 26 percentage points: 80 percent of the U.S. senior population and 54 percent of children were white; however, the growth of the young, new minority population occurs at different speeds in different places. Arizona, for example, had the greatest cultural generation gap of any state at 41 points. Florida, Georgia, and Texas are close behind.

"I voted" stickers
"I voted" stickers. Montinique Monroe/Getty Images

In these states, we see the most tension and struggle for power. It is where older, whiter political leaders are working beyond the current political landscape planning ahead to secure future minority-rule over an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse population. This is a dangerous path.

But, we are not powerless in the face of this assault on our democracy. It's worth reminding ourselves, especially at this time of year, how hard previous generations had to fight to protect and expand our right to vote and our other political freedoms.

The road to the 26th Amendment, as for most freedoms, was long. It did not begin, as many Americans may think, with the Vietnam War but earlier during World War II. It was then that 18-year-olds, newly eligible for the draft, began to argue that if they were old enough to go to the front, they were old enough to enter the voting booth.

Given its current status as a leader in the effort to restrict the freedom to vote, it is ironic that Georgia was the first state to listen to the appeal of these young Americans. The state granted 18-year-olds the right to vote in local and state elections in 1943. Granted, it also imposed Jim Crow laws to ensure only white youth could vote in these elections.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down those Jim Crow laws and provided protections against further discrimination. These protections lasted until 2013 when the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder lifted restrictions placed on state and local governments with a long history of discriminatory practices and gave them free reign to enact harmful laws against free and fair elections. Today, it is open season for voter suppression.

No matter our race, background or zip code, most of us believe that for democracy to work for all of us, it must include all of us. Like advocates before us, we cannot afford to give up. We must fight for our democracy and that includes an unwillingness to compromise on policies like restrictive voter ID laws that were specifically designed to disenfranchise young people.

Voting is habit-forming, meaning one's voting history is the most accurate indicator of future voting behavior. Policies that create barriers for young Americans who are newly eligible voters are uniquely damaging as they increase the likelihood that these individuals never become voters.

When power no longer lies with all the people, democracy is only in name. To move forward as a nation, we must ensure that every eligible American has the freedom to vote, doing whatever that takes.

Carolyn DeWitt is president and executive director of Rock the Vote.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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