The youth vote and Madagascar

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Pedicabs tooled across the UNR campus, taking students to the polls last week. Marika Dimitriadis, a UNR alumna and campus organizer for Re-energize the Vote, skated on roller blades between the library and the Joe Crowley Student Union.

“Are you registered to vote?” she asked students. “Did you vote?”

Some nodded. Some ignored her.

I was wearing my “I voted early” sticker and feeling optimistic. This election season, 20-somethings stood in line to vote early at UNR. Contrary to some reports, many college students actually do care about politics.

After spending half a semester working on campus, Dimitriadis also enjoyed watching students line up to vote.

“The single vote is critical,” Dimitriadis told me. “But youth, in general, haven’t been voicing themselves. We’ve been here to show them their voices are valuable—and to show politicians that youth voices count.”

I’m writing this column before Nov. 2. But there’s already good news about midterm elections. This year marked the first widespread effort of Re-energize the Vote, a national non-partisan project funded by the Sierra Club’s Student Coalition.

Reno campus organizers Dimitriadis and Jordan Butler registered voters at UNR, TMCC and Sierra Nevada Job Corps. They went to classes, frat houses and downtown bars. They signed up about 2,300 young voters from Northern Nevada—Republicans, Democrats and non-partisans.

Butler, 24, likes to disprove the stereotype of politically apathetic youth.

“They just need a little push, a little information,” he said. “Once you present the election to them, and why it’s important, most people are receptive.”

To make this point, Butler told several groups of students his Peace Corps story. In 2008, Butler graduated from UNR with a political science major and minors in French and journalism. He joined the Peace Corps and went to Madagascar. He taught English there to middle and secondary school students.

In 2009, political violence broke out as the country’s leadership was challenged. Madagascar’s military fired shots into a crowd of protesters.

“Just mowing people down,” Butler recalled. “Real bullets—not rubber.”

In the small city where Butler worked, a mob of protestors shut down the radio station and burned down the local yogurt shop—owned by then-president Marc Ravalomanana. The mob then turned its attention to the port. Butler lived nearby.

“They looted sugar and vanilla for three hours,” Butler said. “I sat on my patio watching people haul away sacks of sugar and vanilla.”

The U.S. government decided Madagascar was too volatile. Peace Corps workers were evacuated, though Butler had a year left to serve. Andry Rajoelina, media mogul and former mayor of the capital, assumed the presidency. To date, no elections have been held.

“The whole thing made me realize how much is required to maintain a healthy democracy,” Butler said. “Madagascar is supposed to be a democracy, but only 15 percent of the people vote. Its new president came to power—not through a fair election—but through a military coup.”

Butler doesn’t fear a similar incident in the United States. But democracy functions more smoothly when all voices are heard and can influence government—without violence.

That’s why Butler and Dimitriadis worked 12-hour days to encourage students to vote. They also signed up about 100 volunteers to help with registration and voter pledges. Now that the election’s over, some volunteers want to start a campus club.

“You have given me hope,” I told Butler during early voting, as he manned a table covered with signs, stickers and T-shirts.

“We’ve annoyed a lot of people, asking them to register to vote over and over again,” Butler replied. “So it’s nice when people come up to the table and say, ‘Thank you.’”