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Getting Out the (Rest of the) Youth Vote
Time Magazine recently proclaimed 2008 "The Year of the Youth Vote." MTV has been similarly celebrating the unprecedented youth turnout on Super Tuesday with votes (PDF) tripling in five states and nearly quadrupling in Tennessee their 2000 totals. Inspired by what youth voters see as a more grassroots campaign of Sen. Barack Obama and mobilized through dozens of voter engagement groups, voter turnout among youth increased in every state except New York.
Formerly skeptical political strategists, media outlets, bloggers, pundits and presidential candidates are now paying close attention to this voting bloc. The recognition of the clout of some 50 million 18- to 30-year-old eligible voters in America marks a historic shift in the national discourse. In the past decade, polls showed that public opinion cast young people as "apathetic" overlooking increasing community and electoral activism.
Trouble is, the new mainstream narrative on young voters has a huge gap, and everyone from the Democratic Party to social justice advocates and economically vulnerable communities stand to lose from this ommission. The new youth vote story narrowly fixates on voting among college students rendering close to half of the Americans between the ages of 18-25 politically invisible. While one in every four college-educated youths came out to vote in the Super Tuesday states, only one in fourteen out-of-college youths voted. This disparity in voter turnout has persisted since 1976, seeing only a minor improvement (PDF) in 2000 and 2004.
There are close to 13 million (PDF) 18- to 25-year-olds, who have never been enrolled in college in America. So far only about three million (PDF) voted in the primaries. These non-college youths come disproportionately from lower-income backgrounds and African American and Latino communities. It is these very communities that stand to gain the most from more political power and resources, especially during the current recession.
With Sen. Obama as the presumptive Democratic nominee, these new voters also represent a huge, untapped potential voter base, of which close to half live in clustered, urban areas in some of the most likely swing states, including Ohio, New Mexico, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Colorado (see sidebar). This demographic is equally crucial for progressives of all stripes attempting to build a new majority for pushing universal health care, education reform, and urgent climate change policies on the national agenda. What will it take to mobilize over 10 million non-college youth to come out in November?
Don't Call It Politics
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in April, twenty-year-old Richmond, Calif. native John T. Pointer tells me he never saw the point in voting, and didn’t vote in the primaries. He never talked about politics at home and his teachers never mentioned politics at school. "Me and my brothers mentioned elections once, when we were saying that we should help get a black man to the office," John remembers. His over-sized hoodie covers two-thirds of his five foot eight frame. Two fake diamond earrings sparkle underneath an Oakland A’s hat. John has a warm, laid-back personality. As we walk down three blocks, four drivers honk at him. John knows his Crescent Park neighborhood inside out and the neighborhood knows him.
When I ask John about his childhood, his voice swells with pride as he recounts each case in which he was more blessed than others. Though his mother was addicted to drugs since John was two, he and his three sisters grew up in a stable group foster home run by their grandmother, who always looked after at least two other neighborhood kids. His mother’s addiction also forced John to stay away from drugs. "Our granny told us not to let my mom in the house when she was doing drugs. She’d knock on the door asking us to let her in and we couldn’t. It was tearing me up inside," John tells me. "I can’t do or sell drugs, because of my mom."
While John repeatedly mentions that neither he nor his friends care about politics, he’s eager to show me the signs of economic recession in Richmond and talk about drug-related violence in his community. "Me and my brothers never talk about politics. We don’t know when to vote or where to vote," John tells me, as we walk down a block in which he shows me that seven out of 20 houses have either "price reduced" for sale signs or are abandoned, boarded up, and now used as garbage dumps or drug and prostitution houses. Since 2007, Richmond’s Contra Costa County mortgage default notices have increased by 533 percent. The poverty rate was at 14 percent in 2006, and unemployment is four times higher (PDF) than in the neighboring San Francisco Bay Area.
John lives first-hand the effects of foreclosures that bring more violence to the community. An increase in drug distribution points bring more turf wars and guns to the neighborhood. Over 300 children walk to Lincoln Elementary School, right across from the abandoned house we examine. Parents pray that drive-by shootings miss their kids. John tells me that in the past two years, five of his friends have been killed. In 2006, Richmond had 42 murders, compared to four in the more affluent Berkeley, just three subway stops away.
When I ask John what issues he would talk about to engage his closest friends, who are not in college, to come out and vote, he quickly rattles off three concerns: "We have to get more sports programs in our schools -- it is the only reason middle school kids go to school. We need more funding for our schools and we need more financial aid for those who are considering college."
John adds that the traditional organizing tactic of going door-to-door to get people to register to vote would not work with young people. "Kids are never at home," he says. "You gotta go where kids are -- gyms, community centers, schools. Block parties with music would be best." The biggest obstacle to voting John sees is that registration and voting can’t happen at the same place and the same time. I ask him how many of his friends are on Facebook, as most college students are. "None," he replies. All of his friends are on MySpace and BlackPlanet. John is online frequently, but like most of his peers, he uses a hand-held device rather than a personal computer. Long campaign emails are probably not going to get read. As I leave, John gives me a CD with some hip-hop he and his two best friends recently recorded.
Neighborhood Matters More Than Age
Twenty minutes and three subway stops away, Brian DeFreitas, a Computer Science major at the University of California, Berkeley, tells me he got hooked on politics when he was eleven, during the presidential campaign of 2000. He got registered to vote as soon as he could, at the age of 18. While canvassing at the table for Cal Berkeley Democrats, Brian tells me he is the first in his family to go to college, despite the fact that his parents are doing well without a college degree, working in finance. Like John, Brian tells me he had a very good childhood, but their upbringings couldn’t be more different.
Brian grew up in a middle-class suburb of Castro Valley, where 70 percent of residents are white, with a median income of $64,874. Only 2.7 percent of families live below the federal poverty levels. Brian went to a private Catholic school that focuses heavily on transferring students to four-year colleges. He grew up in a stable home with both of his parents, who often talked about politics.
When I ask Brian about the political issues most important to him, he first brings up the war in Iraq. He then mentions the economy: "I am worried about the instability of our economy. Will I have a job when I graduate?" His third most pressing issue is what he views as a slow deterioration of personal liberties. Brian goes on Facebook several times a day. He grew up on a steady diet of punk and indie rock and enjoys groups like NOFX, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and especially Green Day.
One Size Does Not Fit All
It only takes a few brief conversations with Brian’s peers at UC Berkeley and John’s friends in Richmond to see how dramatically different successful Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) tactics would have to be in these communities despite their similarity in age. While John does not explicitly call his concerns "political," they are no less political than Brian’s. The big difference is that John’s issues are local -- schools, sports programs, violence -- and John’s peers don’t see politicians or voting as a way to solve them. What complicates matters even more is that reaching out to non-college youths like John is exponentially harder than reaching out to students. They are not clustered in one, convenient location within campus. Non-college youths are scattered in cities, suburbs and rural areas, and depending on their background, they will be at different concerts and clubs, social networking sites, and community organizations.
The most prevalent youth GOTV organizing tactics in the field today -- cyclical voter registration drives on campuses, online organizing through Facebook, and the use of nationally recognized celebrities and music acts (rather than local ones) -- are not as effective at reaching non-college youth. Though less funded than the larger student-oriented groups like the U.S. Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), there are a few effective groups that focus on getting non-college youths to the polls.
Black Youth Vote (BYV) has been organizing its constituents to vote, primarily in the South, for 12 years. In many under-funded school systems, close to half of African American students don’t graduate from high school and only 17 percent (PDF) graduate from college. That’s why BYV goes where non-college constituents work and relax -- movie theatres, shopping malls, night clubs, sports events, subway stations and bus stops. "Many youth vote organizations are too fixated on college student organizing," Jordan Thierry, the national coordinator of BYV explains. He believes youth organizers need to spend more time and money on reaching non-college youth, because current disparity gives white and upper-middle class youth and their issues priority on the agenda, further discouraging non-college youth from participating.
Different Issues, Different Mobilizing Tactics
When it comes to mobilizing non-college youths, Khari Mosley, the national political director of the League of Young Voters, another group that works primarily with low-income youth and youth of color, stresses that it’s crucial to combine traditional voter organizing tactics, such as canvassing, with new models to engage non-college youth in November. The League plans to use targeted, localized guerrilla marketing tactics, such as Street Teams who post fliers and stickers in clubs, coffee shops and community based organizations. They will also use a balanced mixture of new mediums -- including MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and text messaging -- in order to reach the widest number of youths from varying backgrounds. While most youth groups use Facebook as their online organizing destination, the immigrant marches in 2006 revealed that Latino youth still prefer MySpace and text messaging. Most of Black Youth Vote members also use MySpace.
Both the League and Voto Latino, the largest online Latino youth voter registration organization, have also learned that using local celebrities such as musicians, actors, and community leaders, rather than famous national stars, brings higher returns when it comes to actually getting young voters to register. In 2006, Voto Latino partnered up with a national Reggaeton celebrity Pitbull. He was able to attract Latino youth to his concerts but it didn’t necessarily translate into voter registrations.
"Pitbull got them excited, but then he left," Maria Teresa Petersen, the founding director of Voto Latino explained. "New voters need to be told over and over and over again about voting. We partnered up with local DJs in Chicago and LA and it worked. They are local, they have a relationship, they are trusted leaders and they repeat the same message."
Mosley also stresses that building long-term relationships in low-income communities with trusted, local and permanent field presence is the best tactic for maintaining a sustained voter bloc. "These young people are some of the most cynical, skeptical and distrustful people in this country when it comes to our democracy," Mosley explains. Every time some new outsider asks people in historically disenfranchised, low-income communities to vote, then leaves and nothing changes, cynicism grows and become harder to counter in the next election cycle.
Mosley doesn’t think we are too fixated on colleges. "The issue is more about not being fixated enough on non-college organizing. College campuses will always be fertile areas for organizing, we need to continue to invest there. […] But we need to expand the work to all post-secondary institutions -- especially community colleges, technical schools and art institutes, etc."
Fortunately, some have already done that. The League, Black Youth Vote, Voto Latino, Young People For (YP4), and College Democrats of America (CDA) are all expanding their outreach to outlets like community colleges whose enrollment includes some 11.6 million students. Most community college students live in their hometowns, providing organizers with potential links between students and non-college youths in local communities.
Closing The Gap
Recognizing a lack of focus on non-college youth and coordination among existing youth organizers, Generational Alliance (GA) recently launched a new initiative: Generation Vote. [Disclosure: The author is the executive editor of Wiretap Magazine, a new member of Generation Vote.] The Alliance has identified at least three different sectors -- student organizing, non-college youth organizing, and cultural and media organizing -- all working without any formal and intentional coordination, sometimes overlapping in their work, and neglecting crucial regions and urgent issues.
This year, Generation Vote brought 17 youth vote organizers together. All groups prioritize reaching out to historically disenfranchised youth from low-income and communities of color. Generation Vote members, among them Hip Hop Caucus, Generation Change, Campus Camp Wellstone, and United States Student Association, put together a shared calendar of trainings and GOTV efforts to identify gaps and share resources, curricula and new voters data.
Samantha Liapes, the director of Generation Vote, can’t imagine a sustainable and powerful progressive coalition if half of young people -- especially those most affected by the issues -- are not a part of it. "As a collective, we will carry out some nationally coordinated efforts designed specifically to reach, engage and project the voices of non-college youth. We will organize around issues of particular concern to non-college youths, such as jobs, criminal justice system reform, and health care access. Members are also building a range of cultural and new media strategies to engage non-college youth."
In 2004, over three million (PDF) new, young voters came out to vote. This year, according to veteran youth organizers, many groups that contributed to this increase either closed up shop or are substantially underfunded, closing local chapters in key swing states. Sen. Obama has launched a major young voter registration campaign, but it can’t succeed by itself. Increased investment and support of the existing grassroots youth groups with local credibility will be key for getting 13 million non-college youth to vote in November.