Remember the girl in fifth grade who would not stand up for the pledge of allegiance? The one who was protesting the way America exercised its foreign influence? The same girl who, a couple of years later, cried when America re-elected Bush? That girl is Claire Stottlemyer, now a senior in Gallatin and out to change the world, or at least get students registered to vote.
A summer intern-turned-outreach fellow at Common Cause, a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizens’ lobby, Stottlemeyer has spent the last few months approaching New Yorkers on the street and inviting them to register.
Stottlemyer has found that it is more difficult than you might expect.
“It was kind of shocking how many people, older people even, have never voted and never been registered,” she said. “A lot of them would actually come up and try to talk to me for a long time about why they weren’t going to vote.”
Stottlemeyer recounted these stories with energy and a sense of humor, and she spoke quickly but purposefully.
“She has a way about her that makes people want to engage and spend more time with her,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. “She carries a passion for advocacy and a talent for organizing that you just don’t see every day.”
As the daughter of a civil rights attorney and nonprofit organization founder, Stottlemyer has been steeped in activism for her entire life. She attributes her political awakening to her family and discussed her transformation with gratitude and pride.
“It used to be my parents forcing me to watch the news every night,” she said. “But then it became [that] I wanted to watch the news every night, and then I needed to watch the news every night.”
In high school, Stottlemyer volunteered to help register citizens in her hometown of Sarasota, Florida. Though the rules for voter registration were stricter in Florida, the independent, tough-as-nails attitude of a New Yorker has proved to be a different challenge for her.
Voter turnout in New York over the last few elections has hovered around 60 percent, only slightly higher than the national average — an embarrassing statistic for a country that champions democracy and freedom. In Stottlemyer’s experience, people’s reasons for not voting span from feelings of apathy and indecision to disbelief in the power of the vote.
Her response? A battle-tested spiel she could rattle off in her sleep.
“If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain,” she said. “There are many options available if you really want to make a change, but everything comes as a supplement to your vote. It’s the simplest, most basic thing that you can do.”
This election season could prove to be especially pivotal. Beyond the issues that receive the most airtime – unemployment, health care and education – Stottlemyer seemed more concerned with a problem that may soon take center stage. Critics of the government’s role in the nation’s future are deepening an ideological divide between those who foster an American attitude of entitlement, and those who recognize that various people and systems have contributed at every step along the way.
Stottlemyer’s stance on the issue is clear.
“As the wealthiest nation in the world, it makes no sense to me that we should favor the approach that Romney advocates, [which is] putting a select group of people above the collective good,” Stottlemyer said. “It will continue to divide us as a country if we don’t put a stop to it soon.”
That such an important election should happen in Stottlemyer’s final year of college only seems fitting. Her work is symbolic of a final stamp of action on four years of activism and involvement. From teaching dance and meditation to incarcerated youth at the Rikers Island Prison Complex to facilitating workshops at Occupy Wall Street, she has consistently sought out the most stimulating opportunities this city has to offer. Last spring, while most of her study-abroad peers were exploring the vibrant culture and lower drinking age of a carefree Europe, she spent the semester in Ghana working for a human rights group that helped local Ghanaians obtain legal services.
As graduation looms on the horizon for the Class of 2013, Claire is not worried about what comes next.
There are people to be helped, reforms to be championed and mountains to be moved — one registered voter at a time.
A version of this article appeared in the Friday, Oct. 26 print edition. Daniel Huang is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]m.