Rock the Vote

When Tom Hayden started working on the Port Huron Statement, he had already been beaten in Mississippi, protested at the Democratic National Convention, met Robert Kennedy, interviewed Martin Luther King, and edited a daily campus newspaper. He was a married college graduate with a full-time job. But he had never voted.

Under current law Hayden would have been eligible to vote in Michigan’s gubernatorial and senate elections in 1958 and in the closely fought presidential election of 1960 as well. But the voting age was twenty-one then, and Hayden didn’t reach his twenty-first birthday until 33 days after Kennedy defeated Nixon.

Hayden and his coauthors didn’t explicitly raise the issue of their own disenfranchisement, but student infantilization on campus and in broader society is a recurring theme in their manifesto. “With administrators ordering the institution, and faculty the curriculum,” they write, the university is a bubble in which “the student learns by his isolation to accept elite rule.” In a similar vein, they argue that the American political system “frustrates democracy” through the disfranchisement of “whole constituencies”—blacks, migrant workers, those in gerrymandered districts, and “poor people . . . without the power to obtain political representation.”

These activists were not naive about electoral politics. They understood how “the several elites” managed the nation’s affairs and were capable of resisting democratic insurgencies. But at the same time they recognized the power of the vote. Nowhere is this expressed more clearly than in the Statement’s closing pages, where they hail the civil rights movement’s new emphasis on voting rights. This “attempt to exercise the conventional instruments of political democracy in the struggle for racial justice” they write, has potentially “revolutionary” implications not just for civil rights, but for American politics generally, given its potential to break the Dixiecrat grip on the balance of congressional power, “shattering the crust of political intransigency” and “creating a semblance of democratic order on local and state levels.”

The student and youth movements of the ’60s would rise and fall without the vote. Each of the decade’s youth activist campaigns would be led and shaped by people who were excluded from direct involvement in the political process on the basis of age. It was not until 1971—after the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State, after Altamont and the Chicago conspiracy trial—that the 26th Amendment would lower the voting age to eighteen. And when that reform was succeeded by the 1972 Nixon landslide, it was seen by many as hollow or irrelevant.

The advances in student power that followed the 26th Amendment have shaped the course of American higher education and the nation.

But campus political organizing flourished in the ’70s, and some of the most profound effects of the expansion of the electoral franchise were indeed felt on the state and local level. With the vote came greater civil liberties on campus, greater student control of student fees, greater access to higher education for previously excluded communities. State student lobbies, many of them based in public university systems, proliferated, and their efforts had concrete effects on law and policy. For instance, in 1974 students in Wisconsin secured the passage of a new section of the state code, 36.09(5), guaranteeing them “primary responsibility for the formulation and review of policies concerning student life, services and interests,” “the right to organize themselves in a manner they determine,” and the power “to select their representatives to participate in institutional governance.” Such victories would come under pressure in subsequent decades, but the advances in student and youth power that followed the ratification of the 26th Amendment have shaped the course of American higher education—and the nation more broadly—in enduring ways.

Legislative work didn’t displace direct action, then or later. Students have continued to sit in, demonstrate, agitate. But electoral organizing has provided support for these efforts in ways that often escape public notice, as when identity-based student activist groups (women’s centers, black student unions, queer student alliances, and the like), run by students and funded by student-controlled fees, serve as nuclei for campus organizing.

Fifty years after the Port Huron Statement, the United States is witnessing the birth of an ambitious grassroots movement with uncertain prospects and diffuse aims. Now as then, people of varying ideologies, with contrasting theories of social change, are coming together in direct action. And although there are some within the Occupy movement who reject electoral politics, others are mobilizing against attempts to turn back the clock on the enfranchisement of students, the poor, and people of color by means of voter ID laws, voter registration restrictions, and similar tactics.

The Statement did not, of course, propose a movement centered on voter registration drives and statehouse lobbying. Its vision of participatory democracy was far more ambitious than that. But it anticipated a revitalization of electoral organizing as part of a larger, deeper movement for social change, and cheered the organizing that it saw in 1962 America. On campus the authors envisioned a movement that would “wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy” in an effort not only to “build a base for their assault on the loci of power,” but also to establish students as real citizens in their universities and their communities.

The student body of today is far less privileged than that of 1962—less wealthy, less white, more burdened by debt, family, and work. For these reasons and others, full student citizenship in the university and in society remains an unfinished project. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement—and many similar anniversaries soon to come—the disenfranchisement of that student generation, and the uses to which subsequent generations of students have put the ballot, are well worth remembering.