When my old boss and friend Ab Mikva died on the 4th of July four years ago at age 90, he left an inspiring legacy for democracy’s next generation, including a robust youth civic education organization, the Mikva Challenge.
A person of unquestioned integrity as a state legislator, reform-minded Democratic congressman, chief judge of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and White House counsel, perhaps the most enduring–and timely–part of Abner Mikva’s legacy was his respect and support for young people’s participation in the political process, from protesting to voting. He believed that young people could change the world, and he knew they made the critical difference in his electoral campaigns as, I believe, they can in the November presidential election.
As a young legislator who fought against systemic racism, Ab would be inspired today by the tens of thousands of diverse young people engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement. The very first legislation Ab introduced when he was elected to the Illinois legislature in 1956 was an anti-housing discrimination bill, an initiative that was more than a decade ahead of the enactment of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968. His first important legislative victory in Congress came when he acted on a tip from a Black student at Hyde Park High School on Chicago’s South Side. “Congressman, what are you going to do about all those camps where they’re going to put all us Black folks?” Ab said he didn’t know about any detention camps, but he investigated and discovered that, in fact, they existed, a remnant of the repressive McCarthy era. Ab’s legislation abolished the camps, and he was proud that the process started with an informed, determined high school student.
In the 1970s, when Ab, the liberal Democratic, was running for Congress in a Republican-leaning district in Chicago’s northern suburbs, he won three consecutive elections by less than one percent, perhaps a modern-day record. In 1976, his victory margin was a mere 201 votes. And in those elections, the votes of young people made the critical difference.
How did we know? Because young people in the Mikva campaign led a highly organized, huge, college-student absentee voting project. Thousands of students on scores of college campuses mailed in their absentee ballots because the Mikva campaign reached out to them and Ab talked about issues they cared about—interestingly, some of the same issues that young people care about today: the environment, gun violence and the cost of higher education.
But in recent decades, political campaigns have mostly ignored young people because they are the least likely to vote. That’s a mistake, Abner Mikva knew from first-hand experience, one that the Biden campaign must not repeat. It must make the youth vote a high priority, in part because the 18-to-29-year-old cohort is now as large as the Boomers. And, in Harvard’s Youth Poll, this youth cohort of likely voters favors Joe Biden over Donald Trump by 30 points.
In battleground states, the youngest, first-time voters can make the crucial difference. For example, in Michigan, which Trump won by less than 11,000 votes, there are 182,397 potential voters 18-to-21. And in Wisconsin, which Trump won by a little more than 22,000 votes, there are 136,119 young Badger residents 18-to-21. Many of the youngest are not yet registered to vote, the single biggest reason why many young people don’t cast a ballot on Election Day.
We need a summer of massive voter registration and inspiration. The stakes are too high for anything less. In the face of the twin calamities of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trump presidency, we urgently need the full engagement of democracy’s next generation.
Sandy Horwitt is an author in Arlington, VA. His most recent book is Conversations with Abner Mikva: Final Reflections on Chicago Politics, Democracy’s Future and a Life of Public Service.