If people want an example of how voting can make a difference for a community, Michelle Obama points to Boone County, Missouri.
“They were struggling to get their children the mental health care they needed” Obama said in Las Vegas Sunday. “The folks came together, came up with a plan to fund children’s mental health services, got enough signatures they needed to get their issue on the ballot and then they got out and voted.”
And the county funded counseling services children needed.
“This happened because folks in one county, in just one part of the nation, believed their kids deserved better,” she said. “And they knew the vote was the way to make it happen.”
Obama has been traveling the country with the group When We All Vote, a nonpartisan organization touring nationwide to promote the power of voting. She was greeted by an eager crowd of about 2,600 gathered inside the gymnasium at Chaparral High School Sunday night.
She dodged loud calls and cheers for her to run for president and refrained from talking about candidates and partisan issues, focusing instead on getting people registered and to the polls come November.
The tour has also enlisted the support from celebrities and public figures to help carry the message that voting matters. In Las Vegas, Obama was accompanied by actresses Kelly McCreary and Lana Parrilla, and comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who stressed the importance of casting a ballot in every election — not just those when presidential candidates are on the ballot.
“We can’t sit around and wait for things to fix themselves,” McCreary said. “Every time we opt out of voting, we give away our power.”
Even before Obama took the stage, the crowd was energized. An hour before the event, they sang along to Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles songs, and even danced down the aisles.
While they waited, some in the crowd began to chant, “When they go low, we go high,” referencing the line from Obama at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Though never mentioning Donald Trump by name, Obama addressed the stress and emotional toll many are feeling under the Trump presidency. “I get it because I feel frustrated too,” she says. “I’m sick of the chaos and nastiness. It’s exhausting and, frankly, depressing.”
Obama implored the crowd not to give in and give up, but to vote.
“We all have opinions on issues like health care, the economy and how much we are paying in taxes,” Obama said. “Yet, still there are millions who think voting isn’t relevant to their lives. Or they think voting won’t make a difference and the system is rigged.”
Even though people don’t always vote — whether through frustration apathy, or just being too busy — there are other forces against those trying to make it to polling stations.
Obama briefly mentioned efforts to suppress the vote through methods such as closing polling stations in certain communities. “There are people out there making it harder to vote,” she said. “You have to ask yourself, in this democracy, why would anyone make it harder for people to participate in the democracy? They are hoping you’ll just give up.”
Key echoed Obama’s sentiment. “It’s tempting to let the cynicism take over,” he said.
He urged the crowd to “turn your anger into action.”
That’s what, Aaron Ibarra, a political science student at UNLV and a community organizer at the Latino-engagement group Mi Familia Vota, said he was doing. During his introduction of Obama, he shared his frustrations with the country and how failed immigration policies hurt his family.
“I’m angry,” he says. “It motivates me to go into my community every, single day to knock on doors and register voters.”
Key pointed to instances where voting has changed the trajectory of a town, including the neighborhood he grew up in.
“There was an intersection between a very large thoroughfare and a very small private street ,” he said. “There was no stop signs or stop lights. We had lots and lots of accidents there. We even had a couple fatalities.”
The people in his neighborhood organized and voted to make a change. “A stop light was put up,” he said. “A positive change was made. That is something that concretely took place because people voted.”
It’s not just candidates on the ballot. Obama said voting matters because people across the country also vote on a variety of state and local ballot initiatives — Nevada has six questions in November. “People who show up to the polls this November will decide what happens on every single one of those issues,” she says. “Not voting is like letting your grandma pick your clothes out.”
Obama reminded the crowd that not everyone is hoping for high voter turnout. “Many people are counting on you staying home on election day,” she said. “They are hoping you sit back so they can make these important decisions for you.”
“Democracy doesn’t wait for you to be bothered,” she said. “It moves on as it rightly should. So that means the people who vote get to determine the future of the country.”
One person who will be accepting Obama’s call to action is Anne Hamasco-Bartolome, who spoke toward the beginning of the event.
After 16 years in the U.S., she became a naturalized citizen in August and will vote for the first time this November.