How to Make a Political Impact if You Can't Vote
In the United States, people under 18, undocumented people, and some people who have been convicted of felonies can't take part in elections. Here are some ideas about what to do instead of (or in addition to!) voting.
Photo by Sean Locke via Stocksy.
Welcome to the VICE Guide to Life, our imperfect advice on becoming an adult.
People make a big deal about voting. And they should! Not everyone has the privilege to vote—including citizens inside countries that point to their democracies with pride, like the United States.
Certain Americans are denied the right to vote because they’re undocumented, have committed a felony (in some places—here’s a breakdown of each state’s laws), or are under 18. As the midterm elections get underway and voting advocacy is everywhere (which, hell yeah), those with barriers to voting who want to make a difference may be feeling discouraged about their ability to contribute to politics. If this sounds like you, take heart: While voting is important, it’s certainly not the only way to effect change. Here are some things you can do to work towards a better world even if you can’t vote.
Take Care of Yourself
It may seem counterintuitive to put yourself first when you’re working to serve your community on the whole, but it’s the most important thing you can do in order to be there for others for the long haul. Activism can be tiring and trying. If you’re going to make a difference in this world, you have to make sure that your own mental and physical health are up to the task. Hydrate, listen to your body, and understand that if you don’t have the physical or mental capacity to show up for your cause sometimes, it’s okay. (And, in the case that you're undocumented and worried that attending a protest or other event would endanger your residency, please don't hesitate to ensure your safety above all.)
Keep in mind that standing up for yourself is part of taking care of yourself, too. Emily Odesser, 18-year-old activist and founder of Teen Eye Magazine, has some tips for you on that front: “Too many people will see your age and discount you immediately (and you may get an ~fun extra condescension bonus~ due to your race or gender),” she tells Broadly. “Learning how to stand tall, raise your hand straight, and say things like, ‘I haven't finished speaking yet,’ ‘Actually, that was my idea,’ and ‘Please don't interrupt me’ are lifesavers, especially during classroom discussions.”
Odesser also gives great example responses in situations where you feel like you’re being taken advantage of or worn down: If someone is asking you to do their homework about a particular social or political issue, feel free to refer them to Google. In heated discussions—and this is especially good in classrooms—she recommends this script: “This conversation is not productive at this volume. We can continue if we both agree to hear each other out, but I will not be yelled at or interrupted.”
When we think of activism, organizing marches and hounding your senators come to mind, but there is so much more we can do to make things better for our communities, our countries, and our planet. I often think about the group who wrote letters of love and encouragement to children detained and separated from their parents at the border under the Trump Administration’s orders. It reminds me that there are so many less obvious but infinitely meaningful ways to help people. Of course we want to change things on a systematic and institutional level. As we work toward that broader goal, putting together a care package for the homeless person you walk by on your way home every day has a lot of value, too. Think of direct actions you can take to better the lives of the people near you.
Use Your Privilege
This is directly related to the above idea, and applies to all aspects of life: Understand your position in the world and how to use it to benefit others. Are you white, cis, a man, able-bodied, straight, or otherwise someone who occupies a privileged role in society? Think about how you stand up for others who have not been afforded the same resources as you have.
One example: If you’re a cis man who is present when a person who isn't a cis man is spoken over consider directing the group’s attention to that person and giving them the chance to finish their thought. Here are many other ideas for you, too.
If you’re white, there is plenty for you to do support people of color. One example: Are you aware that you’re making more money than the people of color, and especially the women of color, despite doing similar jobs at your workplace? Consider sharing your salary and asking your fellow employees if they’d like you to bring up any discrepancies to your manager.
There are hundreds of ways that we can use our various privileges to stand up for others in our day-to-day lives—let’s do them. Politics, at its core, is about serving people, and you don’t need to vote to enact that mission in your own life, directly all around you.
Petitioning, Organizing, and Otherwise Raising Awareness
Moving away from the day-to-day, think about ways that you can organize for the causes most important to you. Politicians’ platforms and legislative initiatives don’t appear out of thin air—they’re often contingent on what the public is mobilizing around.
Petitions are a simple way to garner a lot of support and attention for a cause, and, best of all, they’re free and easier than ever to make and distribute.
If you’d rather take a more hands-on approach to your activism, look into the various ways you can organize on both micro and macro levels. Whether you want to round up some kids at school to protest a sexist dress code or organize a statewide march against a federal bill, it all counts, and it’s all especially possible thanks to the internet. Facebook is free (for now—RIP, net neutrality), and making an event takes fewer than five minutes.
Just because you can’t vote for your representatives doesn’t mean you can’t call them and voice your concerns. It is these petitions, rallies, and calls that motivate a lot of our legislation and help elect our public officials—use that as motivation.
Getting Involved with Organizations
If organizing on your own sounds intimidating (which, fair), check out local organizations that support the causes you’re most passionate about, whether they’re based around immigration reform, menstrual equity, gun control, or whatever other issue you want to support. Chances are you can volunteer, get information from, or even work for these organizations.
Jaclyn Corin, a co-founder of the gun control advocacy group March For Our Lives and student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, believes in the power of effecting political change through organizations. “We just traveled across the country and met hundreds of young people organizing around issues affecting their community,” she tells Broadly. “There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s an organization doing important work in your local area, too. Through these groups, you can continue crucial conversations, learn from one another and encourage your other neighbors to take action.”
Just because you can’t vote doesn’t mean you can’t show up for your favorite candidates or be directly involved in politics. “For every vote you can’t cast, you have family members, friends, and neighbors that you can inspire to vote for your safety,” says Corin.
Canvassing arguably does a lot more than a single vote. If you encourage just two people to vote for your candidate, that’s already double than your hypothetical vote. If the victories of insurgent candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are telling, grassroots campaigning really does work, and the best part is, you can canvas for your candidates even if you’re under 18, undocumented, or otherwise prevented from voting.
Remember Your Cause
As mentioned up top, activism can be grueling and, if you’re not careful, it can burn you out. To help prevent this, Emily Odesser suggests that when you’re feeling uninspired or tired, remember what you’re fighting for. This has the added benefit of making sure you know your shit in conversations surrounding your preferred issue. She says, “If you can take time out of your day to outline the reasons why you believe in a cause, and back it up with specific evidence, be it personal anecdotes or statistics or both, it's beneficial for high-stakes conversations.”
Think about what, in the very beginning, drew you to caring about the cause you’re fighting for, and how much it means to you, despite the times it might’ve driven you to tears. Odesser says these moments of vulnerability may very well be telling of your strengths: “The fact that you care about something so deeply it may lead you to tears is actually awesome. Remember that always.” Remember, too, that you are powerful and can be a force of good in the world, whether or not you’re eligible to vote. Go make things happen!