Over the past year, a group of college students has been working on an initiative in order to increase voter turnout among young Americans and promote a culture of deeper political discourse and responsiveness between politicians and their young constituents. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Education, only 25% of young voters (ages 18-29) voted in 2006. Similarly, the United States ranks 139th in a list of democracies that turn out to vote, far behind nations that lack the most basic of infrastructure. The disconcerting nature of this problem motivated the founders of Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) to undertake a national and chapter-based organizational effort at education and policy reform.
SAVE is a non-profit, non-partisan, organization whose purpose is to promote youth civic engagement and simultaneously increase accessibility for young voters. Our approach is rooted in the understanding that neither goal can be reached without the other; the two are mutually dependent. With this in mind, we have built college chapters in order to coordinate a grassroots effort to reform elections, enhance voter opportunity, and foster a virtue for civic engagement among our generation’s youth. Additionally, we have formed a coalition with three for other non-profit organizations—The League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, Common Cause, Earth Day Network and Mobilize.org—in pursuit of a mutual goal: promoting voter education and registration through grassroots collaboration with statewide institutions. Our current board members include many of our nation’s top leaders—former senators, congressional representatives, governors, mayors, ambassadors, media journalists, and non-profit directors. They include:
• The Honorable Lee Hamilton, Former United States Congressman (IN-9)
• The Honorable Malcolm Wallop, Former United States Senator (WY)
• The Honorable John Edward Porter, Former United States Congressman (IL, 10)
• The Honorable Matthew McHugh, Former United States Congressman (NY, 28)
• The Honorable Jeri Thomson, Former Secretary of the United States Senate
• Eleanor Clift, Editor, Newsweek Magazine; Political Contributor, Fox News Channel & MSNBC
• The Honorable Sharon Pratt, Former Mayor (District of Columbia)
• The Honorable James Blanchard, Former Governor (MI)
• Beatrice Cumming Mayer, Trustee, Sarah Lee Corporation
• Hilary Shelton, Director and Chief Lobbyist, NAACP Washington Bureau
The unique aspect of our organization is not only that it is student-led, but that it focuses on a strong educational curriculum in order to supplement traditional get-out-the vote-efforts. By arming young people with the knowledge to navigate the political process via a commitment to dialogue, issues awareness, and interaction with local government, we hope to create a foundation for life-long participation in the democratic system. Additionally, in response to the variety of cultural and institutional obstacles that seem to stand firmly in the way of fair, open, and truly democratic governance and elections today; SAVE also devotes its time to exploring possible reforms to the American electoral process.
Our chapters at colleges across the country have initiated a grassroots effort to work towards these goals. Currently, we have chapters at 23 colleges and universities across the country; including, but not limited to, the following:
-Kenyon College (Gambier, Ohio)
-Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio)
-Colgate University (Hamilton, New York)
-Towson University (Baltimore, Maryland)
-Truman State University (Kirksville, Missouri)
-University of Wisconsin (Madison, Wisconsin)
-Haverford College (Haverford, Pennsylvania)
-Georgetown College (Washington, D.C.)
-Purdue University (West Lafayette, Illinois)
-Miami University (Miami, Ohio)
-University of Mississippi (Lafayette, Mississippi)
-St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York)
This past summer, our staff operated out of our national headquarters in Washington, D.C. During this time, we held three major events; involving a number of summer interns, students, Congressional figures, members of nonprofit organizations, and many more. At our first, Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (OH-11) was the keynote speaker and spoke to a number of Capitol Hill interns about the importance of civic engagement in today’s society. She was joined by former Washington D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and U.S. Congressman Matthew McHugh.
As part of our election reform project, we held a hearing on youth voter suppression in the House Judiciary Committee hearing room. During this hearing, students from across the country testified to members of the ACLU, the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, Fairvote, Demos, the Study on the American Electorate, and the Election Assistance Commission. The footage from this event will help us compile a report for lobbying Congress for election reform legislation to guard against the occurrence of similar irregularities.
Finally, we held a bipartisan town hall forum at the National Press Club with a panel including former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, former Secretary of Transportation James Burnley, former Congressman Jim Turner, and our board member, Eleanor Clift from Newsweek. At this event, the panel discussed ways to increase youth civic participation, and responded to questions from a young audience—the youngest of whom was fifteen years old.
At the chapter level, SAVE groups will hold on-campus bipartisan issue forums, similar to our summer event at the National Press Club. At our Colgate University chapter, for instance, Tom Vilsack will participate in a forum, while our board member, Lee Hamilton, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have spoken for us at Kenyon College. Also at the chapter level, we will continue to work extensively on our voter registration efforts in our nonpartisan capacity on campuses; while concurrently strengthening our connections with our local communities to gain support for our policy reform measures. Our Kenyon chapter has already garnered the support of U.S. Congressman Zack Space of Ohio’s 18th district; we have his personal letter of recommendation to college presidents throughout Ohio.
SAVE has received wide media coverage since its inception just a few months ago. Since May, SAVE has been featured in the Columbus Dispatch, Insider Higher Ed, the Discovery Channel, C-Span, Campus Progress, the Pioneer Press, Scripps Howard, the AP, the Atlantic City Press, The American Prospect, The Iowa Press Citizen, The Iowa Independent, Politico Newspaper, Magna Publications, The Nation, The Huffington Post, and many college newspapers.
We are invested in many other projects throughout the coming months and we look forward to playing an integral part in shaping the youth vote for 2008.