In 1964, about 700 college students from around the country descended upon Mississippi for what came to be called Freedom Summer. At the time literacy tests, intimidation and violence kept all but 7% of black citizens registered to vote despite the fact that black citizens outnumbered whites in many counties throughout the Mississippi Delta. The students worked as organizers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register black voters, form freedom schools, and challenge the all-white delegation from Mississippi to the Democratic National Convention. Infamously, three of the organizers went missing towards the beginning of the project and were later found murdered. Through their sacrifice, Freedom Summer brought national attention to Mississippi’s voter suppression. The Federal voting rights act of 1965 was signed in the wake of that explosive summer, banning such practices as literacy tests and putting several Southern states under federal review of their election practices.
For the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer, American Experience partnered with PBS to create a powerful documentary of the events released in June. The timing seems fitting given the new wave of voter suppression efforts around the country in voter identification laws and false cries of voter fraud. Despite all the advances in technology, elections are still planned and processed overwhelmingly with paper as registration deadlines 30 days in advance of elections needlessly exclude inexperienced voters.
Youth voting in the 2010 midterm was a mere 24% and overall voting in Indiana ranked us 48th out of 50 states. It was no surprise that in an effort to balance the budget, Indiana elected officials cut $300 million in K-12 education spending and tens of millions more from higher education spending. Tuition at public universities in the state increased by over 9% from 2010-2012 and the average student debt load for 2012 graduates was $27,886. If talent is such an important investment for the public interest, elected officials have an extremely easy time getting away with such backwards priorities. The story is clear young people do not vote and elected officials do not have any reason to invest in them when it counts.
The voter registration deadline came and went on Monday Oct. 6th in Indiana and many states have similar deadlines well ahead of the election. IUPUI did its part by partnering with TurboVote to help register or get absentee ballots for over 440 students. On Oct. 1st we held JagVote to help register students and screened the film Freedom Summer on campus. We are researching at the Center for Civic Literacy to what extent college students are participating in elections and what ways to improve efforts such as TurboVote.
Despite IUPUI’s efforts we still only reached less than 2% of the student population and need more time to do this important work. We need to end arbitrary and pointless registration deadlines and adopt same day registration as Illinois did this year joining ten other states. The Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge acknowledged that same day registration would increase participation rates of youth voters. This would using 1995 technology to solve a crucial problem in our democracy. Its time for a new voting rights act that includes same day registration.
Matt Impink is a former US History Teacher and Education Policy Advocate. He is currently a Graduate Student at IU’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) in Indianapolis and curates the Civic Blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @mrimpink.