Rounding up the Youth Vote / Partisans vie for untapped demographic

By Rania Tikoo

Like many young Americans, Rachelle Reposa felt alienated from mainstream politics.

“I didn’t vote in 2000 because candidates are not focused on issues that face today’s youth,” said Reposa, 25, an undergraduate sociology major at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. “It seems like all the issues [were] focused towards people in their forties or older.”

A lot has changed since then.

“I am determined that my vote be counted this year,” she said. “I do not want to go into war with other countries and waste billions of dollars when we need it over here to feed the poor, and people who are out of jobs.”

Reposa is part of a coveted demographic of formerly apathetic young voters that voter organizations of all kinds are pulling out the stops to reach this year.

Increased registration

Nationwide, a University of Maryland study found that participation by voters age 25 and under has fallen by 13 to 15 percent since 1972. That is the largest drop of any age group.

But a March poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 62 percent of college students “definitely” planned to vote in November, compared with 50 percent of those polled in November 2000.

According to a Newsweek GENext poll, eight out of 10 young voters say the outcome of this presidential election matters “a lot,” and they are generally pessimistic about President George W. Bush’s performance, especially his handling of the war in Iraq.

In June, Dan Glickman, director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, told the Minnesota Star Tribune that the issues in the forefront this year — gay rights, affirmative action, the economy and health care — have led to increased registration of young voters.

In an email correspondence with, Jesse Townley, a 34-year-old candidate for Berkeley City Council, wrote that “the optimism of the 1980s — that we’d be able to own a house and have decent wages — was misplaced then, but now it’s absolutely out of the question. Job security is almost non-existent, and books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Nickel and Dimed’ are very familiar to more and more young voters.”

But James Martel, San Francisco State University professor of political science, believes that neither presidential candidates are successfully courting the youth vote.

“Bush probably thinks he doesn’t have to and Kerry doesn’t seem to appeal to that demographic,” he wrote in an email correspondence.

One young voter concurs.

“I feel an obligation to express my rights through voting … but I don’t feel like they have tried to relate to me,” said Regina Melzer, a 24-year-old college graduate from UCLA. “At least Bill Clinton used to make appearances on MTV.”

However, both the Republican and the Democratic National Committees have taken some measures to try to round up the youth vote.

The Republican National Committee’s “Reggie the Registration Rig” — an 18-wheel tractor-trailer carrying a sound stage, computers and video games — has logged more than 14,000 miles in its cross-country voter-registration national tour.

And in January, the Democratic National Committee teamed up with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus of the College Democrats of America to launch “Pride at the Polls,” a program to educate and register voters to help elect Democrats at all levels of government.

“Create excitement”

Regardless of the candidates’ outreach programs, 2004’s high-stakes race has brought out an array of youth voter organizations — both nonpartisan and deeply political — seeking to tap into this resurgent interest in voting by 18- to 30-year-olds.

“The idea is to create excitement around voting,” stated Gary Davis, executive director of Smackdown Your Vote!, a nonpartisan project of the World Wrestling Entertainment corporation. “Both the Democrats and Republicans have been conducting voter registration at our live events.”

In addition to rallies, television and website programming, Smackdown Your Vote! also provides a national “voter issues paper” (PDF) with responses from both Bush and Kerry.

According to Davis, the intent is to break the “cycle of neglect” of candidates ignoring the concerns of young Americans, who in turn choose not to vote because they believe those in political office don’t care about their issues.

Other youth-voter organizations range from well-known and well-financed, to low-budget and grassroots:

  • Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit project, formed in 1990 “in response to a wave of attacks on freedom of speech and artistic expression.” The group coordinates voter registration drives, get-out-the-vote events, and voter education programs, such as a November 4, 2003, Democratic presidential candidates’ forum in Boston for young voters.
  • Freedom’s Answer, a nonprofit founded in 2002 as a means for high school students to “be part of the response” to 9/11 attacks, has a goal of helping youth leaders register students in more than 10,000 high schools around the country.

  • Voter Virgin tries to create “a culture of fun to inspire first-time voter participation.” The group’s website, full of bright colors and smiling faces, features the slogan “Everybody’s doing it in ’04.”

  • Involver, along with Music for America, a “partisan, political nonprofit,” hopes to motivate a million progressive voters and 10,000 campaigners through a national concert series, youth education and peer-to-peer networking.

  • Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan, nonprofit project, sponsors a national tour of spoken word and live music to promote voter registration. The group also has produced a series of combative and humorous celebrity PSA ads challenging youth apathy.

  • Generation GOP, described as a grassroots network of conservative youth, supplements its college and minority recruitment programs with absentee ballot voting and an online bulletin board.

  • Citizen Change, founded by hip-hop mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, hopes to rally 20 million new young urban voters with concerns for health care and education.

  • Punx for Democracy, originally Punx for Dean, claims on its website to have mobilized 19,000 young voters, and says that “voting once every four years and sticking to party lines is not enough.”

  • The Conservative Punk website provides articles, commentary and links to the “Independent Punk Blog Network,” a collection combative bulletin boards repudiating liberal/left punk bands and publications.

  • Gay Youth Unity Project, a website run by teens, is not exclusively a voter organization, but does encourage visitors to register to vote online.

    Partisan agenda

    Although nonprofits are prohibited from endorsing candidates, many youth voter organizations are special interest groups with partisan agendas.

    The League of Pissed Off Voters, which published a book, “How to Get Stupid White Men out Of Office,” is a “progressive nonpartisan” organization, noted program director Adrienne Maree Brown in an email interview.

    “The exact number of voters it will take to get Bush out of office this year is how many folks we’re trying to empower,” she wrote.

    Christian evangelicals started the Redeem the Vote project “in answer to MTV’s Rock the Vote,” according to the group’s website, and offers voter registration at Christian rock festivals. The website automatically plays a song for visitors, which includes the lyrics, “The morals made of gray / are destined to decay / it’s time to get back to the black and white.”

    The Hip Hop Summit Action Network, a nonprofit, nonpartisan project founded in 2001 by Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records, is coalition of musicians, activists, and youth and industry leaders working for everything from civil rights to AIDS education, and youth voter registration through the Hip Hop Team Vote program.

    HSAN attended the Democratic National Convention in Boston on July 26, and staged a voter registration concert there featuring headliners such as Wyclef Jean and Bone Crusher.

    In a press release, the group’s president, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, announced plans to march in New York City at the Republican National Convention.

    “We are saying ‘no’ to the war in Iraq and ‘yes’ to a war on poverty and ignorance in America,” he said. “Hip-hop is about spitting truth in the face of injustice.”

    Partisan organizations claiming to be nonpartisan are fine so long as they are devoted to getting young people involved in the political process, noted San Francisco State University’s Martel.

    “There are plenty of nonpartisan groups oriented towards older voters that are also very partisan,” he wrote in an email interview. “So if it’s OK for older people, it should be OK for younger people as well.”

    For the most ambitious activists, registering young voters is part of building a political base for the future.

    “We … really believe in doing some long-term thinking and action, not just getting hyped about November 2004,” noted League of Pissed Off Voters’ Brown in an email. “We are planning our impact for November 2012.”

    The goal, she wrote, is to “build a progressive governing majority in our lifetime from the ground up in an effort led by young people.”

    Additional writing by the editors.

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