Six years before he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on those same marble steps and declared that “so long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself” and that “I cannot make up my mind—it is made up for me.”
At the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom gathering May 17, 1957, on the steps of the iconic temple less than a mile from the George Washington University’s Foggy Bottom campus, the then-28-year-old delivered a transformative speech now known as “Give Us the Ballot” advocating for voting rights and setting the stage for the passage key legislation advancing that right in the decade to follow.
On what would have been King’s 95th birthday on Monday, the GW community came together for the 29th annual MLK Day Jr. of Service, run by the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, which included an educational forum on the importance of continuing King’s quest for the right to vote and distributing that power to the people—of all backgrounds.
That conversation rings especially important today. Not only is the 2024 presidential election just 10 months away, but several states have recently passed laws challenging the very rights that King and other civil rights leaders worked so tirelessly to achieve. For instance, King’s birth state of Georgia passed legislation in 2021 restricting early voting and ballot drop boxes and even criminalized providing water and food to voters waiting in line to vote (which has since been partially struck down).
Even as recently as late November, a federal appeals court ruled that citizens can’t challenge racial gerrymandering through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law thanks in large part to the movement King led.
“We have to acknowledge that democracy is something that we grew up with, but it's not necessarily something that we will always have if we are not vigilant about it,” said GW junior political science and international affairs major Vidya Muthupillai. “There are a lot of people across the world who fight and die for democracy. We were born with it, and it is our job to be good stewards of it.”
Muthupillai, who also is the chief ambassador of GW Votes, joined APIAVote Deputy Director Kevin Hirano and CIRCLE Deputy Director Abby Kiesa in a discussion that Assistant Vice Provost and Nashman Center Executive Director Amy Cohen moderated. The panel shared their expertise and experience on the power of voting and civic engagement before the hundreds of GW student volunteers exited to their service sites. President Ellen M. Granberg and Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement Caroline Laguerre-Brown also delivered opening remarks.
Even as voting rights have been used as political tools, voter turnout in the United States has soared in recent elections, especially among those in the 18-to-29 age range.
Recent numbers indicated that the student-aged voting population is doing its best to steward democracy by showing up to the polls at a higher volume than previous generations their age. Researchers say the 2022 midterm election had the second highest voter turnout among voters under 30 in at least the past three decades, trailing only 2018.
“For us, when we look at all this data, we see young people today are saying ‘you know what, my vision of the future is different than we have now, and I’m going to do something about it,’” said Kiesa, whose nonpartisan research organization focuses on youth civic engagement in the U.S.
Hirano pointed to a specific example of that change. He noted that the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused an 11-point increase in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voter turnout for the 2020 election compared to 2016. In May 2021, President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in response to the increased number of hate crimes targeted to the AAPI community.
“Things happen when people see us, and we are seen most in this country when we vote,” Hirano said.
Those efforts are paying off at GW, where the university was recognized by the All-In Campus Democracy Challenge (All-In) as a 2022 ALL-IN Most Engaged Campuses for College Student Voting. The All-In Most Engaged Campuses for College Student Voting recognizes colleges and universities for making intentional efforts to increase student voter participation. GW earned a Silver Seal from the All-In Campus Democracy Challenge for its high voter turnout in 2020. GW had a 69% voting rate, which was a 12% increase from 2016, and it beat the national average of 66%.
The Nashman Center is once again leading the charge to increase voter turnout for midterm and local elections. GW is continuing its partnership with TurboVote, a nonpartisan online service providing students information on how to register to vote, as well as important election information. This information is especially important as GW attracts students from all over the country, where voting laws differ state by state.
On a day commemorating a civil rights icon revered as a beacon for change, Granberg noted that people come to GW to play an active role in creating a better world and that there is no better time to start carrying out King’s legacy.
“That work starts right here in our communities, whether you’re a hill intern taking political science classes or serving as a tutor or mentor or community-engaged researcher, your work is critical to creating change,” Granberg said. “One very important way to do this is to vote in every election for which you are eligible.
“Your vote is your voice. It is your way to be heard, and I cannot encourage you enough to use that tool to make a difference.”