In 1968, I sat in a car with three friends and drove for hours to hear Robert Kennedy speak. We had no air conditioning, our quarters were cramped and we were running late, with no time to get out and stretch our legs.
On the drive back, not one of us doubted that the trip had been worth every mile of discomfort. That speech and others like it helped clarify the challenges that faced my country and my generation and helped convince me that I could make a difference. The course that had first been plotted with John F. Kennedy’s election had finally led me and many other members of my generation to the realization that we had to take an active role in addressing the problems of our world.
I believe your generation’s mission came into greater focus on Sept. 11, 2001. The events of that tragic day shocked and horrified us all, causing an entire nation to wonder how this could have happened and what we could do to help in its aftermath. Sept. 11 also gave a new generation cause to wonder what differences it could make in the future of our country and our world.
The unity and sense of common purpose that swept the country created an opportunity to strengthen our nation in every sense of the word by working together to promote real, positive change. If the only lasting change in our behavior is our willingness to arrive at the airport earlier, we will have failed to seize that opportunity.
Every elected official, Democrat and Republican, understands that the safety and security of the American people is our first responsibility. Democrats, however, also understand that the challenges we face go beyond national security and homeland security. They involve the protection of the quality of our air and water, help in affording college tuition, the type of jobs and the strength of the economy waiting for you when you graduate, the status of women’s rights and workers’ rights and civil rights, the integrity of our system of capitalism, and the future we’re building for today’s seniors and tomorrow’s workers.
Some of you are helping to meet these challenges already by volunteering your time, by organizing campus events or by mentoring neighborhood children. For all that you do, however, there is one simple activity which can influence everything else. You can exercise your right to vote.
I was first elected to Congress by 14 votes out of a quarter of a million votes cast, so I know in a very personal way how much every vote counts. In the 2000 presidential race, the whole country learned how breathtakingly important just a few votes can be. And this year, your vote could be the one that tips the balance of power in Congress and defines the direction of our national policy agenda.
There are real differences to be decided in this election, and real differences between the candidates. More than ever, what course we choose will make a difference – to you, your lives and your future. So I urge you to get involved in this year’s elections, regardless of your party preference.
In 1787, near the end of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a woman who asked him, “Dr. Franklin, what have you given us?”
“A republic,” he replied. “If you can keep it.”
Now is your time to not only keep our republic but to strengthen it. Now is your time to shape America to your ideals, and that work begins at the ballot box.
-The writer is Senate Majority Leader (D-S.D.). He is not currently up for re-election. This letter was submitted
to several college newspapers across the country.