National Voter Registration Day was created ten years ago to make registering to vote easier. The day is set aside for folks to sign up for the voter rolls. It is a non-partisan day that specifically got started because voter registration can be complicated in some states.
The date of September 25 has been selected because it was on this day ten years ago that Rock the Vote founder Bill Powers came up with the idea for National Voter Registration Day while he was visiting his daughter at college in Los Angeles.
Origins of National Voter Registration day
The Los Angeles Times has a fascinating account of the origins of National Voter Registration Day.
We’ve included the text of the L.A. Times story below because it’s an integral part of history that needs to be read.
On this day in L.A., Rock the Vote founder Bill Powers dreamed up a voter registration drive.
By Greg Braxton (Los Angeles Times) September 25, 2011, | 6:00 am On September 25, 2003, news spread through the student body at Occidental College that its alumnus Bill Powers had helped create a new national holiday designed to make registering to vote easier for students like them across America.
The following day, as word spread through social media and radio shows around campus, thousands began lining up for hours — some as early as 2:30 am, according to school officials — hoping to be first in line when the goal of registering at least 100 new voters was achieved before sundown.
The student-led event, organized by Powers and Occidental College Young Democrats and dubbed “Rock the Vote,” drew national attention from CNN, MSNBC, and USA Today. It also served as a model for hundreds of similar voter registration drives that have been conducted on college campuses across America since then, including those that will once again play a key role this year as young people vote in record numbers in the presidential election.
“I had no idea it would turn out so big,” said Powers, now 34, who went on to found the organization Rock the Vote, which has since registered about 4 million new voters nationwide. “We created this thing called National Voter Registration Day on September 25 because it happened to be my birthday and … we registered 2,000 people that first year at Occidental College.”
“It was a real galvanizing moment for our generation,” he said of his brainchild. “I think there’s an incredible consensus among young people that they are not represented by what’s going on in Washington right now.”
Rock the Vote was born out of Powers’ frustrations with politics during his senior year at Occidental, when only 10% of students who were eligible to vote made an effort, according to school records. He first came up with the idea of a national holiday focused on student voter registration while attending the 2003 State of the Union address as an Occidental College delegate.
At that time, President George W. Bush was pushing to create voluntary individual retirement accounts. Powers remembers thinking: “If he can get millions of Americans to invest and put aside money for their future and take control of their economic destiny — which is an important thing — why can’t we do something political or civic that gets our generation involved?”
“So I called my parents, who were activists in Santa Monica, and said ‘Let’s try to register 100 young people at our college tomorrow.’??”
Powers’ mother, Carole Stonesifer of Redmond, Washington, recalled getting the call from her son at 10 pm on January 29, 2003: “I said ‘Bill, that’s great!’ but I thought for sure he was just doing it at his school.”
“Then I heard on the news that morning that they had registered 2,000 young people in one day across the nation,” she said of the first-of-its-kind event her son helped coordinate. “(College administrators) were so impressed with what Bill did and how he did it.”
Powers had some help. He worked closely with David Burstein, who became Rock, the Vote’s communications director, and is now writing a book about youth voter engagement after starting 18MillionRising.org, an online movement to get out the Asian American and Pacific Islander vote for the 2016 election.
“We were very strategic in a lot of ways,” said Burstein, noting his organization used MySpace to help spread the word about the drive-by urging popular bands at the time — including The Killers and Third Eye Blind — to visit college campuses on September 25 and promote it. “It was pre-Twitter so Facebook was fairly new … so we had a lot of young people helping us spread the word.”
Powers said he hopes this year’s registration efforts will be just as successful, whether Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton is elected the next president. But with just over two months until America goes to the polls and voter interest high among millennials nationwide, he says Rock the Vote will be ready.
“There’s a presidential election that’s going to happen in November and there’s a lot of other elections where the president is not being chosen,” he said. “We have to get people out to vote on all of those issues.”
How National Voter Registration day is celebrated
In addition to helping register voters, Rock the Vote also plans to hold events this year highlighting social justice, environmental issues, and civil rights, Powers added. In past years, students at various campuses held rallies for these causes while passing out T-shirts and stickers to their peers.
Powers called it an effort that was not only fun but important: “It should be about civic engagement and getting involved … It shouldn’t just be a day when we say ‘Hey people are signing up to vote!’ … It should be a celebration of democracy.”
“It’s not just about the election,” he said. “It’s about making sure that anytime you go online you’re hearing from Rock the Vote and how it can help you become active in politics and make a difference.”
Powers said his next goal is to get high school students more actively involved in voting since they’ll be first-time voters at an even younger age. With only one out of five young adults between 18 and 29 likely to cast ballots this fall, according to recent numbers from Pew Research Center, it’s something he doesn’t want them to miss as soon as they turn 18.
“Right now we have only 19 states where you can pre-register, so you can go online and say ‘Yes I’m interested in voting,’ but you have to wait until you’re 18,” he said. “We want that process to start when people are 16 or 17.”
Powers knows politics is not for everyone but argues the results of every election affect all Americans regardless of age.
“Not voting is a vote for what’s being done … It’s kind of like if you didn’t pay your taxes they might take away some of your rights like freedom to travel,” he said, adding the same would happen if young adults don’t show up at the polls on November 8.
“Democracy works best when we all participate … We make great together.”
“Do something that matters and be a part of it,” Powers urged. “If you’re not going to vote, then find someone who will.”
Rock the Vote registration events are scheduled for September 25 at campuses nationwide —including UCLA, U.C. Santa Cruz, and San Diego State University — and online at www.rockthevote.com. More information about the organization can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.