After the 2000 presidential election, Americans can no longer ignore the fact that a few hundred votes can have a tremendous, lasting effect. Due to the Electoral College system, the current presidency was decided by a margin of only 537 votes. This figure was often repeated in the days and months following Nov. 4, 2000 and we are approaching a time when lessons learned in the 2000 election may again become relevant. Five hundred and thirty seven votes is truly a tiny number. While many decried Ralph Nader for "spoiling" the election for the Democrats, it should be noted that every candidate on the Florida ballot received enough votes to swing the election in Al Gore's favor. This includes Harry Browne, John Hagelin, David McReynolds, Monica Moorehead and other candidates about whom a vast majority of American knew nothing. To put it in perspective, 537 votes represents roughly .000003 percent of the approximately 156 million people registered to vote in the 2000 election.

The statistic that is most troubling is the disparity between the number of Americans eligible to vote and the number of votes actually cast. Of the roughly 186 million citizens who could conceivably vote, only about 105 million did. When one considers what is at stake, this turnout is unacceptably low.

Even worse, it is our age group that has been the most apathetic. Only 36 percent of eligible citizens aged 18 to 24 voted in the 2000 election. For the most part, our classmates at Brandeis and at colleges and universities across the country have implied with their inaction that they do not care who runs this nation.

Perhaps this is not a fair allegation. After all, there are barriers to casting a ballot. Registering to vote and actually getting to a voting place affect students disproportionately. Many of us will be voting for the first time. Many of us are not registered or are not residing in the state where we are registered. Remarkably, many of us remain unconvinced that our vote matters.

The first two problems are relatively easy to fix. Filling out a registration form takes at most a few minutes, and one can be obtained for Massachusetts by calling (800) 462-VOTE. Those registered in another state can find absentee ballots at the Federal Election Commission's website, Come November, those registered in Massachusetts can find out where to vote by calling the Waltham City Clerk at (781) 314-3120.

Of course, this information will fall on deaf ears if we cannot convince more of our age group that its vote is worth casting. Many teenagers and young adults feel they are unrepresented in the governance of this country. They feel the issues that are important to them are unimportant to those making the laws and policies that directly affect their day-to-day lives. Ultimately, they feel powerless to change this situation. The irony is that our peers have the largest reserve of unclaimed power. It is their discouragement and apathy that leads them to believe that they cannot make a difference.

We have the most to gain by having our political preferences noted. The political, social and economic policies that our next president sets in action will have repercussions as we start our first jobs, pay back our student loans, or perhaps start families. With many justices, including members of the Supreme Court, approaching the end of their careers, the next president will be appointing justices that will preside when we are middle-aged. Clearly, there is more on the line than who will be delivering the State of the Union address for the next four years. The decision in November has the ability to affect all of us for the rest of our lives.

Because of the registration process, it is vital that this message be delivered now, rather than in October or November. It may be easy to do, but it is also easy to forget about, as evidenced by the pitifully low turnout of registered voters. Registration polices vary from state to state, and many have deadlines that fall well before Nov. 4. If we do not generate information and interest in this most central of civic duties now, we may regret it later.

Though we may bemoan the Electoral College, the registration process, inconvenient polling times and places and other electoral policies that complicate the voting process, our first responsibility is to navigate these hurdles and make our voices heard. If we need to start preparing in January to vote in November because of these complexities, so be it. Free and fair elections are at the heart of our democracy. Only by participating in them do we have the opportunity to make them easier and more accessible.