Vice President Kamala Harris and actress Annie Gonzalez following a talk on youth voting on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, at Reading Area Community College. (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall)
READING., Pa. — In a national political climate that is breeding threats to fundamental rights and freedoms, young people have the power to decide the direction of the country by voting, Vice President Kamala Harris told an audience of largely Latino college students on Tuesday in Reading.
Harris called on the students to speak with their peers and family members about the importance of voting to elect officials who will fight for reproductive rights, environmental justice, gun safety and a host of other issues that disproportionately affect minority youth.
“I am so certain that when the students who are here, when your generation starts voting in numbers, so many of these things will change,” Harris said during her talk at Reading Area Community College.
The discussion with actress Annie Gonzalez, known for her role in the Netflix series Gentefied, was the latest stop on Harris’s monthlong “Fighting for Our Freedoms” college tour, which the vice president described as an opportunity to engage with ambitious and aspirational students who have a stake in the future of the country.
“What I love about the fact that you are here is you have already decided, by the very fact that you are a student here, that you are going to lead, that you are going to be a role model, that you’re going to be committed to what we can do as a society to make sure everyone’s voice is heard and that everyone matters,” Harris said.
Harris’ stop in Reading coincided with National Voter Registration Day, when Gov. Josh Shapiro also announced that Pennsylvania residents who renew a driver’s license or state identification card would automatically be registered to vote.
Shapiro’s executive order drew criticism from Republican lawmakers, including Senate State Government Committee Chairman Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, who called the change unconstitutional and argued that it circumvents the role of the legislature.
Gonzalez, who has used her profile in the Latino community to champion voting rights, noted that the last two national elections have had record and near-record youth voter turnout.
“And now we have people who are going to vote for the first time in our 2024 election, which is really exciting. Why is it so important that we use our voice?” Gonzalez asked Harris.
The record youth turnout in 2020 led to President Joe Biden and Harris’s election, Harris said,
“Because young people — and, in particular, young voters — said, ‘We are going to direct and decide what is the direction of our country,’” she said.
That was driven by a range of issues that worry young people and that the Biden-Harris campaign had vowed to tackle, Harris said.
“I’ve heard young leaders talk with me about a term they’ve coined called ‘climate anxiety,’” Harris said, describing the trepidation that young people experience over the unknown effects of climate change and how to make decisions about their future.
“But because people voted, we have been able to put in place over a trillion dollars in investment in our country around things like climate resilience and adaptation, around focusing on issues like environmental justice,” Harris said.
Gonzalez said the challenge is getting young people to vote, especially Latinos who make up about a quarter of the youth population. Harris said the key is to remind each other of the importance of voting.
“There is no better way to lead than to do it as a peer — meaning we can talk with young people about what they need to do, but when you’re talking to your peers about how you know it makes a difference, your leadership is so powerful,” Harris said.
Calling for a show of hands from the audience, Harris noted that the generation that will vote for the first time in 2024 became acclimated to school not just by learning where the bathrooms were, but also how to handle an active shooter on campus.
They’ve lived their entire lives in a climate crisis and with the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe vs. Wade, and Harris said, they will be the first generation in half a century to have fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers.
“So, when I think about our young leaders, they have been through a lot. But they also — what I love about you is that you’re not waiting for other people to figure it out. You are leading on these issues,” Harris said.
But with young people exercising their power at the ballot box in record numbers, “that scared some people,” Harris said, noting that new obstacles to voting have appeared, such as Georgia’s law (since revised) making it illegal to give food or water to people in line at the polls.
Harris cited Shapiro’s automatic registration order as a contrast to the obstructions and an example of “how things are supposed to be.”
She concluded by telling the audience that to achieve progress, they must not let their visions be burdened by “the way things are.
“The greatest movements in our country have been about the empowerment of people, the fight for equality, for freedom, the expansion of rights — those movements have almost always been led by students,” Harris said. “And so, again, I’m here to encourage you to do what you already have decided to do.”
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