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On the Importance of Voting

21/06/2016 15:46 | Updated 21 June 2016

young voter

This Thursday, on the 23rd of June, millions of people will be going to polling stations throughout the UK in order to cast their vote. The people of the UK will be deciding whether we should remain or leave the European Union, a decision that will have a drastic influence over the future of our country. It will affect every one of our lives, and it will determine the role the United Kingdom plays in the world for decades to come.

The chance to vote is not something we should take lightly, not only because of the power each of us holds in our own hands, but also because the right to vote is something we should all treasure. When we cast our votes on Thursday, we should remember that in 1780, only 3% of the population of England and Wales could vote. That 3% was, of course, made up of wealthy white males who thought they and they alone should decide the future of their country.

We should also remember that there are still many people throughout the world who are denied the right to vote or whose votes simply don't count. Even though universal suffrage is a key element of our democracy, we are still lucky to have it. In countries like North Korea, Zimbabwe, Syria, and China, citizens have little or no say in how their countries are run. To many people throughout the world, the idea that a government would hold a referendum seems an idealistic dream for the distant future. We, in the UK, are living that dream of democracy.

But we shouldn't just feel fortunate that we have this right to democratically choose our governments. We should also feel grateful. Now, I'm not saying we should be thanking politicians or the establishment or the monarchy for granting us this right to vote. After all, the right of universal suffrage was not given to the citizens of the UK out of good will or kindness from benevolent bureaucrats. It was fought for.

We should feel grateful to all those who struggled and persevered so that we could go to the polling stations on Thursday. We should feel grateful to Thomas Paine, whose book The Rights of Man called for an expansion of suffrage beyond wealthy elites. We should feel grateful to the radical speaker Henry Hunt and the 11 people killed at the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, attacked by local yeomanry for calling for their right to vote. They were martyred for their fellow men and women.

Then there are the Chartists, the 19th Century radical campaigners for parliamentary reform. Their six-point programme included demands for universal suffrage and voting by secret ballot - both of which we take for granted. All of these revolutionaries gave us what we have today, and we should commemorate their struggle by casting our votes on Thursday.

But these groups were only the beginning of this battle. When we vote, we must also feel indebted to the suffragettes and to Emily Davison, that great feminist figure who fought for her rights as a woman. Indeed, she gave her life for the cause of female suffrage. At the Epsom Derby of 1913, Emily Davison stepped out in front of King George V's horse in a symbol of protest. Four days later, she died from her injuries.

Alongside Emily in this battle for woman's right to vote were Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and many, many others. They suffered persecution, alienation and abuse so that women could have equal voting rights to men.

And last but not least, we must remember Martin Luther King Junior and all those men and women who took part in the civil rights movement. If they hadn't marched on Washington in 1963, and if they hadn't clung so ferociously to their heartfelt dreams, black men and black women might still not be able to vote in the United States. Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated for fighting for his beliefs - he gave his life so that he and his fellow black Americans could have the right we enjoy today.

That, I suppose, demonstrates the importance of voting. Not just because we are voting in an incredibly important referendum, but because we are so lucky that we can vote at all. It hasn't always been like this. We haven't always had this great democratic right. So, when we put our slips in the ballot box on Thursday, whether we are men or women, black or white, Christian or Muslim, working-class or bourgeoisie, we should remember those who gave their lives so that every one of us could have this right.

When Thursday arrives, I urge you to go to the ballot box and vote. If you feel alienated and disenfranchised by the current political climate, I don't blame you. But you still ought to go to the polling station and vote or, at the very least, spoil your ballot - it may seem pointless, but it shows that you care and ensures you won't be dismissed as entirely apathetic.

Turning out to vote on Thursday is the least we can do for all those campaigners and martyrs who championed the rights we enjoy today. Whatever your stance on the referendum, let your voice be heard.

HuffPost UK Young Voices is running a month-long focus on the EU Referendum, examining what is at stake for Britain's young people on 23 June and why it's imperative you register to vote and have your say. If you want to have your say and blog on our platform around this topic, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com. Register to vote here.

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