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Guest Opinion: 50 years ago, NC played a historic role in securing voting rights for young Americans; let’s continue that legacy today

By Bob Phillips

It was 50 years ago this month that North Carolina became the final state needed to ratify the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, lowering the national voting age to 18.

The amendment’s adoption was made possible in large part to young activists highlighting the injustice of 18-year-olds being drafted to fight for our country while denied the right to vote.

Since the amendment’s ratification, the cohort of young voters has shifted from Baby Boomers, to Generation X, to Millennials and now Gen Z. While each generation has faced the unique challenges of its era, the constant has been that young voters infuse our democracy with energy and idealism, a much-needed antidote to the complacency and cynicism that frequently pervade politics.

There’s a persistent myth that young people are apathetic towards politics and voting. That’s far from true, as shown by a post-2020 election survey from CIRCLE at Tufts University. The study found that “more than three-quarters of young people believe they have the power and responsibility to change the country.”

Nearly one in four voters age 18-29 nationwide donated to a campaign or helped register others to vote in the 2020 election, about half tried to convince their peers to vote and two-thirds spoke with friends about the election and politics, according to the survey.

An overwhelming majority of these young voters say improving communities goes beyond casting a ballot, understanding the importance of remaining engaged after Election Day.

Still, there’s been a stubborn gap in turnout between young and older voters. In 2020, 60% of North Carolina voters age 18-25 cast a ballot, the highest for this group since 2008. But even with a strong increase last year, turnout for young voters lagged behind other age groups in our state and was below the 84% turnout among voters age 66 and above.

In order to bridge that generational divide, our state should work to make voting more accessible for young adults. That starts by defending and building upon the successful innovations that made North Carolina a leader on voting access, including robust early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and same-day voter registration.

High schools should promote pre-registration, which allows 16- and 17-year-old North Carolinians to complete a voter registration form and automatically be added to voter rolls when they turn 18. Our state should expand online voter registration and county boards of elections should designate polling places on college campuses.

In addition to strengthening voting accessibility, we should encourage young adults to serve in elected office themselves, giving a voice to their generation in the rooms where policy is crafted and laws enacted. Far too often, the stifling demands of big money in politics create a wealth barrier, preventing everyday people from running for office. Establishing a voter-owned campaign finance system that reduces special-interest influence and focuses on small donors would help open the door for younger people to serve in government.

Finally, a key step forward for all voters – young and old – would be passage of the For the People Act. In the wake of the 2020 election, we’ve seen voting rights under attack by partisan politicians across the country. Congress should enact the For the People Act to protect everyone’s freedom to vote and build a democracy for us all.

A half-century ago, our state played a historic role in securing the right to vote for young Americans. Our nation is stronger for it. Let’s keep that legacy alive today by empowering a new generation of voters and leaders.

Bob Phillips is executive director of Common Cause NC.

FOR MORE COLUMNS AND LETTERS TO THE EDITOR, CHECK OUT OUR OPINION SECTION HERE.

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