Why I Volunteer, Even Though I Can’t Vote


photo: Pargon/ BY-NC-SA

By Meredith Wade

I rolled out of bed at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m. on the first Sunday of summer…to thrust clipboards at random strangers downtown, hoping to gather contact information from more than five of them for my local chapter of Obama for America.

Why do that? More importantly, why do that in a state like Utah, which is almost certain to vote Republican (as it has with 100% consistency since 1968)? In fact, as someone under voting age in a nation full of tired cynics, why be politically active at all?

Because people like me, who have the time and passion to devote to a cause, have influence far more powerful than a single vote and more vastly-reaching than our home states.

Young people in America don’t have control over much of anything. So for us, volunteerism is an appealing way of asserting political authority despite the seeming powerlessness of youth.

And we’re not the only ones who don’t feel in control. Age is one of the most concrete barriers to feeling included in the political process, but perhaps more powerful is the knowledge that you’re in the political minority. This—in addition to general dissatisfaction with the government—discourages many American voters, who don’t see their vote impacting electoral outcomes, let alone improving their day-to-day lives. What’s the use of casting a ballot for Romney in a 99.7% assured blue state like California, or a vote for Obama in the irrevocably Republican Utah? Perhaps voting seems futile in those situations, but that doesn’t stop volunteers living in such states from participating in ambitious efforts for their candidates. All pessimism aside, the outcome of the election will make a difference in America’s future. Because we care about that future, we’ve got to recognize what great campaign managers know: how to channel our enthusiasm into effectively canvassing more prominent swing states.

Obama for America sends a bus full of Utah volunteers each month to canvass neighborhoods in Colorado (which the New York Times currently shows at a 64.1% chance of an Obama victory, and which holds more overall electoral sway than Utah). And although Ohio, too, is 64.8% likely to vote for Obama, Mitt Romney volunteers organized a campaign to knock on 30,000 doors there in a single day.

Across the country, Americans see their candidate’s success in the 2012 election as a path out of economic downturn. I’m lucky to be financially stable, but even so, the nation’s recent recession has made the looming specter of college tuition seem markedly more daunting for my family than it would’ve even a few years ago.

Monetary concerns are something all of us experience every day, so they’re a pressing and visible connection to the political world. That connection is what brings a great many American citizens—not just youth—to volunteer work. For them, devoting upwards of a dozen hours a week to working phone banks is a way of establishing control over issues that matter to them when solutions seem continually out of reach.

The democratic process is frustrating, even alienating. But the rise of civic engagement is increasingly providing an outlet for political anxiety—that feeling of not having a say in where the country’s going—by giving every American—even you—the opportunity to be part of a movement that ultimately makes a greater difference than a single election. 

About Meredith:

Meredith is a guest contributor to Youthradio.org. She is a rising high school senior in Salt Lake City, Utah, and interested in history. She writes, “To me, though, history acts as a really great excuse to examine and understand many different facets of human society, and it allows me to throw myself into things like literature, art history, and sociology.” She loves listening to (and, less frequently, making) music, dancing, and studying Arabic. To read more from Meredith, check out her blog here.


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