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Rock My Vote

by Lily Eskelsen, NEA Vice President

It’s been a long time. Ok. A long, long, o Lordy Long Time since I was 18 years old.

But if you were there, you’d know that was a time of such trial and trouble, you can’t help but remember it.

You remember university protests and street rallies and politics that ripped families apart. Vietnam is still a painful word to so many of a certain age. So many cared about politics back then because for so many it meant war. For so many it meant patriotically supporting the war. For so many, it meant patriotically opposing the war.

But for others of a certain age, 18 year old boys, to be exact, regardless of their politics, it meant a time that you were old enough to graduate from high school, and you were old enough to be drafted.

You were old enough to fight for your country. But you were not old enough to vote for the leaders who would make the decision to send you.

That changed in 1971.

The 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the fastest Constitutional Amendment ever passed, was introduced to allow young men and women who had been given adult responsibilities in every other aspect of their lives, the constitutional right to choose their leaders.

(Watch the signing ceremony here)

I hadn’t quite turned 18 yet. I was a girl, so there was no draft in my future. I remember watching Cronkite on the 6:00 news (You youngsters will have to google “Cronkite”. For that matter you might want to google “6:00 news”. There was no 24-7 cable news channel. When somebody said it’s on every channel… they meant all three.)

I remember my parents talking about the presidential choices. I remember my high school history teacher, Mr. Olsen, talking about current events that were affecting families we all knew. Everything was politics and elections and choices and consequences of those choices.

Then, in 1971, in a movement led by students and their teachers, 18 year olds were given the right to be a part of making those choices, and ever since, young people have been making their voices heard at the polls.

They’ve been watching the politicians. They’ve been judging fact from fiction and arguing and questioning and changing their minds and making up their minds and opening their minds in a way that makes me proud, whether those minds settle on a conservative point of view or a liberal point of view. Of course there’s apathy. Young, old, rich, poor - apathy is always a factor.

Some politicians actually factor in apathy into their campaign strategies. But there is also the Good Citizen.

Young, old, rich, poor – the Good Citizen always shows up and votes. The citizen who votes has the power to choose. And win or lose, showing up and choosing means our political leaders and those who want to be our political leaders have to factor voting citizens into their campaign strategies.

They can’t ignore us. Very Important Politicians have to come down to earth and answer our questions and tell us their plans and priorities, and we have the responsibility to hold them accountable for their actions.

There are too many politicians these days (maybe there always have been) who govern as if the election were by an elite corporate board of directors who hired them as the corporate CEO who would rule over unruly masses of workers. But our system is based on elected officials as public servants, not corporate bosses. The average, middle-class worker isn’t to be “bossed”. The average, middle-class worker is the boss.

The country belongs to all the people, not just some board of directors and their CEO. The vote is our only power as a people. We have a proud history of evolving and expanding the power of our people which has served as a check and balance to political bosses. It’s something revolutionary patriots took up arms against England for.

It’s what women suffragettes chained themselves to Woodrow Wilson’s White House gate for and went on hunger strikes for. It’s what Martin Luther King and millions who marched with him put their lives on the line for.

It’s been many years since our nation has drafted our 18 year olds to serve their country in the military. But the times, they are a-changing. Today our young men and women are called on to serve as citizens in the voting booth.

 And so we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of new voters with every graduation day. We celebrate the 18 year olds and their mothers and fathers and grandparents and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors. We they are celebrating our right. We celebrate the call to service.

We celebrate our right to listen and learn. We celebrate our right to think and argue. We celebrate our right to show up. We celebrate our right to make the choice of a citizen. And that rocks.


Informed Voter Education in the Classroom
Voting Rights Curriculum Resources

Fighting for the Right to Vote
NEA Honors Project 18 Members

March 21 is Democracy Day
Bring the Celebration to your School!

Free Electronic Toolkit
Find Out More

Rock My Vote
by Lily Eskelsen