This opinion piece originally appeared in Teen Vogue
Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy. I’ve always believed this, but was recently reminded of this truth when I signed into law a bill that would include prepaid postage on all Oregon ballot return envelopes, one part of the sweeping voting reforms Oregon has made recently. On that day, I heard from many young Oregonians about why increasing voter access was important to them.
One young woman, Lina, stood out to me. She said she can’t think about voting and not think of her mom, who didn’t have the right to vote when she turned 18 because the country she lived in didn’t give her the opportunity. Lina grew up knowing the importance of voting and knowing how many people had suffered firsthand to ensure they had the ability to participate in a system they are held accountable to. The very first thing Lina did when she gained her U.S. citizenship was register to vote.
As governor, I meet young people like Lina every day — and others who are doing incredible things to inspire a new generation to get involved, get active, and have their voice heard.
I also meet countless young folks who tell me they feel that they’re inheriting a world that’s messed up. That they don’t feel represented in politics. Or that their climate fate will be sealed before their 25th birthday unless my generation wakes up and takes action.
They ask me what they can do to make change, real change. My answer is always the same: Vote. Your vote is your voice.
In Oregon, we’ve worked hard to make registering to vote as easy as going to the DMV. We were the first state in the nation to create an automatic voter registration system that registers all eligible state residents to vote when they get their driver’s license or state identification card renewed, updated, or issued. We’ve implemented online voter registration and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds. But while steps such as automatic voter registration work wonders, it doesn’t capture every eligible voter.
I know firsthand the power of voting and why every vote counts. When I ran for office for the very first time, everyone said I was doomed. My opponent was well known; I was not. That made it all but impossible to raise money for my campaign. But I had two things going for me: guts and determination. If I couldn’t out-fundraise my opponent, I would outwork her.
I became the human embodiment of what it meant to run for office. I ran, sprinting from dawn until dark every single day — knocking on as many doors and talking to as many voters as I could.
And yes, in the end, I won — by seven votes. Seven. Votes. Any time you wonder if you should bother voting, or if your vote even counts, you should think of me.
Today, many, many years later, people still stop me in the grocery store to say, “I was your seventh vote,” and whether they were or not, their vote made a big impact. Yours can too. Because our nation’s problems — homophobia, sexism, climate change, immigration — are addressed in major ways at the ballot box.
I understand that voting isn’t always the sexiest thing to talk about. But thanks to a bunch of young people making a damn big difference, times are changing.
National Voter Registration Day was first celebrated in 2012, inspired by an activist here in Oregon who was alarmed by data that showed millions of Americans were missing the opportunity to vote because they didn’t register or had simply missed the deadline in their state. Now it’s a national holiday that brings awareness to the importance of democracy and having your voice heard. Today more than 4,000 community partners are working together to help register more than 250,000 eligible voters across the country in honor of National Voter Registration Day.
But still, every year millions of eligible Americans find themselves unable to cast a ballot because they missed a voter registration deadline. Today is your reminder to register to vote. Our democracy doesn’t work for us unless all eligible voters can access the ballot box, and that starts with registration.
Registering to vote should be easy, and the act of voting should be simple and fair. It is our greatest power as American citizens, and our country’s greatest collective responsibility. Whether you care about climate, reproductive rights, or gun reform. Whether you’re a Democrat, Independent, Republican, or nonaffiliated, we all have something to fight for or against.
Instead of feeling frustrated by policies that enrage you, feel empowered by your right to vote. Make sure your voice counts. Register to vote.