The “Roll To The Polls” initiative made casting ballots easier for these new voters. The annual effort reflects the teamwork of the River City (TN) Chapter of The Links, Inc., Shelby County Schools and the I AM A Voter Collaborative. (Courtesy photo)

More than four million 17-year-olds will turn 18 prior to the 2018 midterm elections. The new voters’ block has the potential to become one of the most powerful electoral players before 2022.

Pressuring elected officials to pass gun-control legislation is a leading issue. During last month’s March for Our Lives in Washington, young speakers vowed to rid their states and the nation’s capital of officials who would only act in the best interest of the National Rifle Association.

Other liberal causes also concern first-time voters this year: the Republican Party’s assault on voters’ rights in red states; abortion rights; Obama-era environmental protection regulations that are being systematically dismantled by the Trump administration; reversal of decriminalization of small amounts of drugs; dismantling of Obamacare; and reduced funding for social programs and services.

“There are a lot of things that made us get woke,” said Evan Fields, a 21-year-old Cordova resident. “Voting now is more critical than it has ever been in our lifetime. Gun control would make our schools safer, and those millions of kids and their supporters made something crystal clear to me: if we just stay woke, our movement can win. We really have the power to vote out those who do not represent our causes.”

Jae Henderson, a barely-40 political activist, decided this year to use her platform to incite voter engagement through social media messages, videos and encouragement from prominent Memphians.

Videos are posted on her “Vote Shelby County Page” on Facebook from such luminaries as Fred Jones, founder of the Southern Heritage Classic; radio personality “Big Sue” from WHRK-K97, and radio station KJMS-V101’s Stormy.

“I wanted to use my influence to work toward bringing the level of participation in the primary elections equal to that of the general election, if not more,” said Henderson. “In the last primary election in Shelby County, only 18 percent of registered voters participated. I believe that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”

Her page contains early-voting dates, times and locations, sample ballots and other voter-related information.

“We must vote in the primary to make sure that the best candidates make it to the general election,” said Henderson. “If we want to change policy in Memphis and Shelby County, especially those who say they love our city, primary voting is a necessity.”

Said one young voter, “We’re gonna be vigilant now that we got woke. We are strong as long as we unify and vote in every election, exercising our hard-fought right.”

Uniquely devised ways of voter engagement are pulling young people together in a civics crash course on how important the vote is.

River City Chapter Links and Delta Sigma Theta sorority convened with students to create the “I am a Voter” collaborative. Young people learned first-hand about the voting process. Young men involved in the program conducted a voter-registration drive recently at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Vanecia Belser Kimbrow, Esq. imagined teaching young people about voting so they would look forward to engaging in the process.

“It’s never too early to get our children thinking and debating on the issues,” said attorney Kimbrow. “When engaging in some exercise teaching them how voting decisions determine the policies made by elected officials, we are helping to develop a civically responsible voter. That’s a win-win for everyone.”

Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., Pastor Emeritus of New Sardis Baptist Church, recently had his church involved in outreach voter registration.

“I was a college senior the year Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.) was killed here in Memphis,” said Gray. “I have been organizing voter-registration drives since 1968. Dr. King went to President Johnson in 1964 and said, ‘We must have the right to vote.’ Johnson told Dr. King that he didn’t have the votes in Congress to pass it. But Johnson told King to go back south and create the pressure needed to pass a voters rights act.

“Well, Dr. King organized the Selma march, and when the police began using the cattle prods and billy clubs on the marchers, Americans saw and said, ‘Enough! This has got to stop. The act was passed and signed in 1965.

“We are, African-Americans, a majority in both the city and the county. We must act as if we are. Now is the time to be engaged, be proactive, and be aware,” Gray said.

“All our votes make a difference. Too many died so that we would have that right. Voting has been our heritage. Voting is our way forward.”

(NOTE: Early voting for the May 1 Republican and Democratic County Primaries continues through April 26. For more information, including the ballot and early-voting locations, see Page 10.)