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Bikers tour stops in BG

Whether it be through blistering heat, sheets of rain or impenetrable wind, a group of young Americans have traveled across the United States with the goal of educating citizens on their rights as voters.

And the coolest part is they rode bicycles.

Starting from Portland, Ore., on Aug. 12, Bikes For Democracy has already traveled over 3,000 miles out of a total 3,600 mile trip; with the destination of Washington, D.C. set for a week after the Nov. 2 election.

The group rode into Bowling Green on Monday afternoon, the final day of voter registration in the state of Ohio. With a goal of 2,004 registrants across the country, BFD was about 50 voters shy with time running out.

Without hesitation the group made its way onto the BGSU campus and surpassed its goal of 2,004, collecting over 100 new registrants within an hour.

The concept for BFD was first conceived in Nov. 2003. Two of the original members — Mike Sowiski of Buffalo, NY and Brianna Cayo-Cotter of Washington, D.C. — were just hanging out together, discussing how upset they were to know that only half the U.S. population voted in 2000.

“Brianna and I were doing what a lot of people our age do, we were sitting around and complaining, and we realized that we wanted to do something creative and positive instead,” Sowiski said. “We wanted to bike for something, not against something. We’ve talked for years about biking across the country, but never thought we could afford it or find the time. This seemed to be a good window in our lives to make the commitment.”

Originally consisting of just five riders, BFD has generated such a popular following through both word-of-mouth and the Internet that five more people joined up with the group during stops in Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis, Minn.

Now traveling 10-strong on their way to the nation’s capitol, BFD has riders from the following states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine, New York, Maryland, Oregon, Texas and Massachusetts.

Twenty-year-old Lauren Kanner learned about Bikes For Democracy through an Internet web site and decided to join the ride in Minneapolis.

“Registering voters, making sure their votes counted and making sure voters were informed … those values really attracted me to the group,” she said. “And I really love biking as well.”

Along with the five new members who joined BFD midway through the trip, countless other Americans have joined the group for brief trips on a two-wheeler.

“We’ve had a lot of people who joined on for day-rides, or a lot would guide us out of cities,” Cayo-Cotter said. “Our first ever guest rider was a 10-year-old girl in Wayland, Wash.”

“A guy running for Secretary of State in North Dakota joined us for an 80-mile ride,” she said. “He was a serious biker, and he taught us how to ride in pace lines and all this other stuff. It’s been a really unexpected and exciting part of the trip.”

The bikers shared some interesting facts this past Monday night at Grounds for Thought with an audience who gathered to hear their stories.

One was the open-arms voting policy that citizens living in North Dakota benefit from. Residents of the state only have to show up to the polls on election day and present proof of residency in order to vote. If they do not bring a utilities bill or other document with them, then a neighbor in the community can vouch for the person’s proof of residency.

According to the members of BFD, North Dakota was the first state to create voter registration forms, and the only state right now that doesn’t have a voter registration process. North Dakota also happens to have the highest voter turnout in the country.

“At first they created [registration] to help facilitate the process and found that later it became a barrier so they took it out,” Sowiski said.

Each of the members of BFD took time to recount their favorite experiences from the cross-country trip thus far.

Rider Ariella Cohen has been impressed with the level of community activism she’s seen from young people.

“The other day we were in Indiana, and we met this kid who worked for a citizens awareness group in the area,” she said. “Because he felt there was nothing to do in his town, he petitioned for a skate park to be built, and is petitioning for a new radio station because there was no station in his state that played non-commercial music. I found that so astounding and amazing that there’s people all over the country doing work that we don’t even know about.”

Brianna Cayo-Cotter has found inspiration in visiting states that are considered “swing,” whether it be on the local or presidential levels.

“So many national organizations didn’t even bother with Montana, it was kind of written off as a republican state,” she said. “We go into Montana and so much was going on in their local issues, it was a swing election for their state. There are huge issues going on there about indigenous rights, environmental stuff and gay-rights.”

Benjy Whatley has appreciated having the opportunity to correct some of the misconceptions that people across the country have had about their right to vote.

“We’ve registered people who’ve been given misinformation by their families, or work, or even sometimes by their parole officers,” he said.

Many citizens who have committed a felony in the past were unaware that they had the right to vote, Whatley said. Others were actually told by their parole officers that they could not vote.

Bikes For Democracy has heard many other stories of voter disenfranchisement while riding across the nation. Mike Sowiski can recall two from the state of Wisconsin alone.

“In Madison, we heard of a group spreading information to low-income people, saying that if they show up at the polls they would be forced to pay any unpaid bills,” he said. “In Milwaukee, we heard examples from the last round of the primaries, people wearing official-looking green vests that were doing intentional intimidation and misinformation of people at the polls.”

Ariella Cohen has found it surprisingly simple to both correct the misconceptions that have lead to voter apathy across the country and leave citizens excited about the electoral process again.

“We found a lot of people didn’t know the voter laws of their state, and it’s really easy to take the minute to correct a mistake, and then they are happy and will vote,” she said.

Bikes For Democracy spent all of Tuesday in Bowling Green, aiding local activist groups throughout the day. They also joined in a mass bike ride group on Tuesday afternoon, promoting bicycle travel over cars and pollution. The riders then took the time to participate in an art workshop last night at the UCF community center with members of the College Democrats and student group ReachOut.

They will leave Bowling Green and continue eastward through Ohio on Wednesday morning.

When asked about Ohio’s battleground status, Brianna Cayo-Cotter tried to emphasize that a lot of people around the country are relying on voters from the Buckeye state.

“One thing we hear a lot from people we are trying to register is they feel their vote doesn’t matter,” she said. “But if you’re living in Ohio, you know that your vote makes a huge impact.”

Above all else, the goal of Bikes For Democracy during this trip has been to reignite the democratic flame that has failed to burn inside many of America’s citizens for so long.

“I’m trying to urge everyone to vote because so many people in this country can’t but want to, whether they are immigrants, or too young, or locked up,” Mike Sowiski said. “In addition, what we do in the U.S. affects people worldwide, and they would have wanted a say as well.”

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