July 1, 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the ratification of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Democrats are marking that occasion by shining a spotlight on young activists dedicated to improving the lives of Americans and bridging cultural divides.
Like so many Americans, the three words that got Max O'Beirne motivated to become politically active were "Yes, we can."
Yet O'Beirne was only 15 years old at the time—not old enough to drive, much less cast a vote.
He remembers watching Barack Obama deliver the now-famous speech in New Hampshire in 2008: "I was under the impression that I couldn't change the world, that I couldn't really affect the world. That speech was a personal challenge to me, saying, 'Yes, you can change the world.' So I went out and started canvassing in Northern Virginia, by my house. And Obama ended up winning Virginia, which made me feel like I had affected the outcome of something. I've been involved ever since."
In 2010, O'Beirne interned with Tom Periello's hard-fought congressional campaign in in Virginia's Fifth District—and the midterm election was also his first experience as an actual voter. Despite a disappointing outcome in that race, he says, "It was empowering to be able to cast a vote to elect a public official instead of sitting on the sidelines. I felt equal. I felt like I had just as much say as any other citizen."
This summer, the 19-year-old is working as a summer organizer with Organizing for America, spending his days at a Charlottesville coffee shop having one-on-one conversations with Virginia voters about how they can get involved in the Obama 2012 campaign. He reaches out to another 60–70 voters each day on the phone and helps ensure phone banks and voter-registration drives run smoothly. "There wasn't anyone doing that for me when I was younger," he says. "I see it as a way of giving back to help people engage their world and shape their world."
And this fall, when O'Beirne heads back to school at the University of Virginia, voter registration will continue to be a major part of his extracurricular life. Virginia law requires a person be registered to vote at their current address—which can easily cause problems for a transient student population. O'Beirne expects to work with the University Democrats to make sure that his classmates' voter registration is up to date with their new dorms and apartments. And while he's at it, he says, he'll get a few "I'm in" pledge cards signed—because he knows just how important it is to get out the youth vote for President Obama.
After all, "It's our future, and we should have an equal say in our future as someone who is retired and 65," says O'Beirne. "It shouldn’t be up to other generations to decide what will happen. And although the young don't usually have as much money to put into campaigns, we at least have our vote to speak for us."