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Voice Your Vote

Read this story on the Huffington Post

This November, I played a part in history. After 18 years of watching and waiting, I finally got the opportunity to help select the people who control much of my country, my opportunities and my life. This November, I voted.

As an Ohio resident, I am engrossed by politics every election year. In fact, I often joke that once Election Day has come and gone, it will be another four years before people begin caring about my state again. On that one day, though, we get our glory -- all eyes are on us. Ohio's 18 electoral votes and, more importantly, its status as a swing and bellwether state make it the home for political advertisements and campaigning. This year, however, Ohio also served as the home of BBYO's first Voice Your Vote Issue Summit, a three-day conference that truly changed the way I look at politics. The 2012 presidential election is an experience I will never forget -- not only because it was my first time voting, but also because of the unique opportunity that Voice Your Vote afforded me.

The day before the election, I drove up to Cleveland, Ohio to meet almost 100 excited teens ready to make their mark on the election. The participants came from all over the country and represented all ends of the political spectrum. From Democratic states like California to Republican states like Texas to swing states like Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the crowd was diverse. Even so, one thing rang true for every participant. Everyone had a perspective to offer and everyone came to make a difference despite very few of us actually being eligible to cast a ballot.

The first day of the Summit offered participants the chance to learn about each of the major candidates and their parties objectively. From their views on the economy and gay marriage to gun control and foreign policy, we were put into the candidates' shoes. We were instructed to compromise and work together even if we had differing opinions to try and find a middle ground. Of course it was hard and, in some cases, it seemed nearly impossible. We learned how difficult it is for a politician to please everybody.

Day two was election day -- the core of the conference. We got up bright and early, selected a candidate that we supported, and spent the day making phone calls and going door-to-door canvassing to get out the vote. We worked as hard as we could, knowing that any door we knocked on could very well be the door of the voter that changed the election. The idea may seem far-fetched, but nowhere is that truer than in Ohio.

After canvassing for about 10 hours, we went back to our hotel to watch the results unfold. With maps on the walls, televisions set on MSNBC, FOX and CNN, computers on Huffington Post's politics page and a hundred people on their smart phones, everyone was ready. As the night wound down, emotions ran rampant and, whether or not an individual was happy with the results, we all knew that what we did that day had made a difference.

On the next and last day of Voice Your Vote, we listened to a BBYO alumna and local candidate (whose race was still undecided) talk about her experience working for the government. We also participated in what I believe was the most meaningful part of the three days -- a program centered on the idea of "taking it home." We discussed how we could make a difference in our communities now that the election was over. We knew we could lobby or write letters to elected officials, but we wanted to make a difference with meaningful and constructive efforts like we had in Cleveland. We discussed how to tackle bipartisan issues, such as natural disaster relief, to see tangible results of our efforts.

Before this conference, I never really understood the importance of being civically engaged. I knew I was lucky to come from Ohio, but I never thought that my vote truly mattered. Now, I realize that not only does my vote count, but also that I can make a difference in other ways. By purely taking an interest and educating myself, I can take a stance on the issues. It is my responsibility to take action in my community. Whether I'm meeting with a city council member about the dangerous intersection by my neighborhood or discussing foreign policy with my friends, I know I have BBYO and The Voice Your Vote Issue Summit to thank for the inspiration. My opinion is important and it deserves to be shared. We all want to improve our community; we all want to move forward. This is the start.

This November, I voiced my vote and I will continue to make my voice heard. Will you?

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