At 25, Margie Klein has already had her first bill passed into law, traveled across India with the subcontinent’s leading feminist activists, and helped save the Arctic national wildlife refuge from oil and gas drilling. But what really gets her excited these days is the idea of knocking on doors—in college dorm rooms.
“Some friends and I came up with the idea for Project Democracy while we were up in the Colorado mountains at a get-together for young activists,” says Klein. “We began talking about the discrepancy between the number of students involved in service projects and the percentage who actually vote. We realized then if we could harness the incredible energy on college campuses, young people could take back this country in the next elections.”
The conversations grew into a series of conference calls, and then fundraising, and suddenly Klein found herself at the helm of a new youth voting organization that aims to register 25,000 new student voters, and turn out 75,000 to the polls. “We were thinking big, and then we began thinking bigger,” she explains. “The program was adopted by the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and then things really took off.” Klein began planning alternative spring-break conferences in Florida, where students from all over the country flew down to learn how to register and mobilize their peers. Within a couple of months the idea for a grassroots youth-voting project had spread, and chapters of Project Democracy had sprung up on 30 campuses, ranging from Ohio State to University of New Mexico.
The idea is simple; while other organizations try to promote youth voting by buying spots on MTV, or hiring stars like Britney Spears to tout voting on Times Square billboards, Project Democracy talks with, not at, young people. Students fill out surveys that list the concerns most important to them. If a student names pro-choice issues, then she gets linked to the campus Students for Choice. If she cares about reducing pollution, she’ll be contacted by the student environmental group. And progressive groups on campus work to make sure students understand that they can only make an impact the issues they care about most if they register—and turn out to the polls.
Project Democracy’s efforts are already showing results. As a result of the organizing at the University of Florida, Gainesville voting records for the presidential primary last March showed the highest youth voter turnout the city had ever seen. “We have a movement now of sorority members and football players and people who had never seen themselves as political before,” says Klein. “We don’t care if you wear the activist uniform. We’re talking about building broader alliances.”
As an observant Jew, Klein has sometimes had to struggle with balancing her role as a young director of a secular organization and her decision to be Shomer Shabbat. But she believes that the work that she does is part of her spirituality. “For me, the idea that people should have a stake in the future is the ultimate act of faith,” says Klein. “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, ‘When I walked [in the civil rights march] in Selma, my feet were praying.’ I think that’s the highest manifestation of Judaism.”