This year, the Class of 2020 turns eighteen years old, and therefore, gains the right to vote, by tradition. While the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the 2020 presidential primaries, voters will still be able to cast their ballots by mail in the July 7th primary election as long as they register by June 16th. And never has there been a more pivotal moment for this next generation of fresh voices to exercise their civic duty.
Three months ago, governors across the country ordered millions of Americans to stay home indefinitely. The number of COVID-19 cases surged in cities across the US; the virus impacted many families, workplaces, and nursing homes, with few people not knowing someone afflicted by the virus. As hospitals began admitting COVID-19 patients, hospital staff soon realized that they lacked the necessary beds, ventilators, and personal protective equipment to care for the growing number of patients. Hospitals and clinics also experienced a shortage of coronavirus tests, and due to the virus’s mechanics, by which infected people could be asymptomatic for over a week, the pandemic ravaged entire communities as the healthcare system could not support treatment for all.
Meanwhile, the stay-at-home order pushed workers onto unemployment and forced businesses to close. According to the Washington Post, almost 40 million Americans are receiving unemployment insurance from the government, and CNBC reports that 7.5 million small businesses are at risk of closing. And for workers who rely on employer-based healthcare, losing one’s job means losing their healthcare. How can businesses plan to reopen without earning revenue for at least three months? How can laid-off workers keep their families afloat without any income? How can people seek coronavirus treatment—let alone any medical treatment—without health insurance?
Still, most people retain their jobs; though many industries shifted to working remotely, those deemed “essential workers” now risk their lives every time they go to work. Grocery store workers, police officers, and delivery men and women are among those whose jobs were impacted directly by the pandemic, with increased sanitation protocols and safety measures implemented in the workplace. And even though some sectors of the economy remain open, our economy is suffering. Americans cannot afford their rent, and specifically for the Class of 2020—both college and high school graduates—the prospect of entering this current job force or saving money to afford college appears more difficult.
And the current public health and economic crisis only exacerbate the racial inequalities endemic to our society. The police murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and chiefly George Floyd have brought our country to a breaking point, as Americans can no longer ignore the realities of our time: racial disparities in COVID-19 cases and implicit bias in policing. The Black Lives Matter movement, through protests on the streets and activism online, ignited the call for police accountability and police reform. Unfortunately, these protests, in some instances, devolved into violence. The Black community is rightfully angry; they deal with racism and anti-blackness daily since the dawn of slavery. However, these Black Lives Matter protesters are not fully responsible for these surges of violence. Some people have hijacked this movement for equality, taken advantage of their platform, in order to sow division and damage the cause.
Disappointingly, the President has attacked these protesters for exercising their right to free speech enshrined in the Constitution by threatening to turn the military on them. He opposes those seeking justice and has further fomented tension between police and protesters, between liberals and conservatives, between Black and White Americans. But look at the other side. The presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee, Joe Biden has not worked to unite the country either. He waited days to speak on the situation, even as the nation begged for a uniting figure in the vacuum of power which Donald Trump created. Even worse, his new, measly proposed police reforms do not address the concerns of protesters. In fact, both Biden and Trump have abdicated their duty to lead, during a time where the nation yearns for leadership. Now, more than ever, the participation of this next generation in these coming elections matters.
The country seems broken right now. Yet in reality, political turmoil has embroiled the United States for the entirety of the new graduates’ lives. In 2002, this class was born into the War on Terror in the aftermath of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses, and the decline in privacy from the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. In 2008, when this class entered first grade, the economy collapsed. School budgets enacted cuts, parents lost their jobs, and families lost their homes. In 2012, when these students were in the fifth grade, they watched on the news that a stranger entered Sandy Hook Elementary School with a semi-automatic rifle, threatening their peers. And they watched as these tragedies occurred again, and again, and again. History repeated itself. This generation, despite the ignorance which youth should entail, has never experienced any sense of stability.
But as this generation has come of age, they have observed the change that younger generations affect when they remain active and informed advocates. In 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage after decades of LGBTQ+ activism. In subsequent years, America witnessed the initial rise of Black Lives Matter which pushed the U.S. Justice Department, under President Obama, to hold police departments across the country accountable for police brutality, though the action was not enough. The #MeToo movement exposed powerful people, from Hollywood to Capitol Hill, for sexual misconduct in the workplace and empowered women (and men) to report instances of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. And in their sophomore year, these students reacted to the Parkland, Florida school shooting with political pressure on lawmakers. Change occurs when young people illuminate the problems within society.
So vote. This opportunity to achieve electoral progress presents itself to the Class of 2020 for the first time in their lives, and your voices are waiting to be heard. Your ideas can fix the response to this once-in-a-century pandemic, this economic recession with an unemployment rate second only to the Great Depression, and this lingering racism from centuries ago. Don’t throw away your vote, your leverage against the powerful who seek to maintain the status quo. Around the world, people die for this right in our representative democracy. Armies of people in America’s past have sacrificed themselves for this right. In other places across the globe, people today, through voter suppression and disenfranchisement, still do not have this right. You do. Use it.
To participate in next month’s elections, you must register to vote, by mail or by e-mail, by June 16. Because New Jersey is a closed-primary state, you must register as either a Democrat or Republican to vote in the respective party’s primary. If you are seventeen years old, you may register to vote, so long as you turn eighteen by the time you vote. Then, after you have registered to vote, you must request by mail a mail-in ballot by June 31. You can also request a ballot from your County Clerk by 8 p.m. the day of the election. Your mail-in ballot must be received by July 7, so take into account the time it may take to mail your ballot.
Beyond simply voting, though, make an informed vote. Research your options in every election, from president to school board. Guarantee that their values align with yours, and verify that their actions match their rhetoric. Recognize today’s issues—a medical crisis, an unstable economy, and a racist pandemic—and deploy the power in your vote.