After years of trying just about everything to get young people to vote, only to see their participation in elections continue to free-fall, youth voting activists have reason for hope next month.
That hope is found in surveys such as a recent MTV poll, in which 39 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they plan to vote in this year’s presidential election. Only 30 percent responded similarly in 2000, when that age group’s voting turnout hit a record low of 32 percent.
But Carrie Donovan is cautious. “There are optimistic signs,” says the youth coordinator for the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE). While teens and young adults are expressing more enthusiasm about voting, she says, “it’s really hard to say” whether more will turn out.
Organizations around the country are certainly devoting plenty of time and money to the cause, while education issues and the war in Iraq have piqued the interest of many young people in current events.
“There is much more activity this year, in both the partisan realm and the nonpartisan realm, than I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been part of this for a decade,” says Ryan Friedrichs, director of the Young Voter Alliance, a coalition of groups working to get young people to vote for Democrats. The Pew Charitable Trusts alone says that since the 2000 election, it has awarded more than $16 million in grants for projects to increase young voter turnout and study the effectiveness of such projects.
What encourages activists like Friedrichs is that many of those efforts build on evaluations of tactics tried over the past several years. Just last month, CIRCLE released a study of youth voting efforts last fall in New Jersey, which significantly increased turnout by contacting people beforehand about voting, then on Election Day contacting those who had expressed an interest in voting and urging them to do so.
Such efforts grapple with a social contradiction: Youth activism and community service appear to be on the rise, but young people are more turned off by politics than anyone else and see little reason to vote.
“Youth have become jaded by being told what to do by public figures,” says Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and former director of public policy at The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Veronica De La Garza, executive director of the Youth Vote Coalition, says voting is “very personal” and young people want information from someone they already trust.
Perhaps that’s why the use of technology in campaigns gets mixed reviews. In the New Jersey campaign last fall, the Election Day contacts were made with cell phones. But other research released this year by CIRCLE, which is based at the University of Maryland and is partly funded by Pew, found that tactics such as weekly text messaging, e-mail updates and website banner ads promoting a candidate tended to turn off young people from the candidate or from voting.
What has become consistently clear is that while voter registration is a necessary first step, it must be followed up in order to have a significant impact. The most successful efforts usually include face-to-face contact. A study of Pew-funded get-out-the-vote efforts in 2000, conducted by Yale University, found that face-to-face canvassing increased the odds of voting among targeted people by an average of 8.5 percent, and that the effect was strongest among those under 25. (See “The Youth Vote: Why Bother?” December 2003). Phone contact increased voting by about 5 percent.
But the study estimated that face-to-face canvassing costs $19 for each additional vote. That’s why some organizations are seeking a middle ground, such as the phone calls in New Jersey.
Civic education is also effective. According to CIRCLE research, 87 percent of youth who say they are politically engaged also report discussing politics with their parents, compared with 25 percent of disengaged youth. Professor Don Green of Yale, who has conducted several of the studies cited, says educating youth on the political process is particularly effective. He cites work done at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, which has found it effective to allow young people to practice voting on a machine.
The hip-hop industry has also emerged as a potential force. As rap’s first generation of bona fide moguls emerges, some have begun to use the genre’s celebrities to entice youth into taking interest in the voting process.
Following are profiles of several efforts to draw youth into that process:
New Voters Project
1533 Market St., 2nd Floor
Denver, CO 80202
The New Voters Project (NVP) grew from research on the impact of certain strategies to get young people to vote. Backed by a $9 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, NVP uses peer-to-peer contact to reach politically disengaged youth in six battleground states: Wisconsin, New Mexico, Iowa, Oregon, Nevada and Colorado.
Those states, say NVP staff, carry strong potential for youth influence. About 56 percent of Wisconsin young people (ages 18 to 24) turned out for the 2000 election, one of the highest youth turnouts in the nation. Turnout in New Mexico ranked among the five lowest states, at 28 percent.
Tobi Walker, program director of Civic Life Initiatives at Pew, says state field sites were targeted because they were the center of much press attention and had dense, easily accessible populations of young people.
NVP’s field plan has three components: campus organizing, business partnerships that allow young people to register at their workplaces, and a field campaign that places canvassers at malls, movie theaters, music venues and other high-traffic locations.
Since most 18- to 24-year-olds don’t attend college, NVP formed partnerships with businesses to supplement general street campaigns. NVP spokesman Adam Alexander notes that many young people “are working full time and might not have the opportunity to go to their local city clerk’s office during business hours” to register.
In Las Vegas, for example, the largest slot machine manufacturer gave employees time off work to attend an NVP-sponsored event and register.
The field campaign is manned by hundreds of volunteers and full-time staff members, who go to places frequented by young people, such as movie theaters, clubs, bars and concert venues. NVP reported that as of late September, it had registered 225,000 voters; it hopes to register 265,000.
Follow-up is just as important as initial contacts. NVP teamed up with allies in the Youth Vote Coalition to build a voter file that will allow its workers to contact youth closer to Election Day, urging them to vote, referring them to the closet polling places, and re-registering individuals who have recently moved.
The project is hosting an online presidential youth debate, in which visitors to its website can submit questions for President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry and vote for the top 12 questions, which NVP says the candidates have agreed to answer.
NVP is operated by the State Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) and The George Washington University School of Political Management.
Hip-Hop Summit Action Network
c/o JLM Public Relations
580 Broadway, Suite 1208
New York, NY 10012
The hip-hop culture is perhaps the most glaring icon for the disillusionment of American youth. At its center, rap and hip-hop music have always publicized the scourges of urban poverty and the youth who were trapped in it. That the more upwardly mobile youth of America’s suburbs buy into hip-hop with fervor says a lot about the divide between Baby Boomers and today’s teens and young adults.
“The biggest obstacle is the so-called generation gap,” says Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) President Benjamin Chavis. HSAN, founded by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, strives to bridge that gap.
HSAN sets out first to bring politics to youth, rather than youth to politics, by drawing them to events that are not primarily political. It uses big-name rap artists – including Reverend Run of Run DMC, Andre 3000 of Outkast, Eminem, Wyclef Jean, LL Cool J and Juvenile – to draw youth to “summits.” These are interactive panel discussions where youth get answers to questions about the importance of voting and civic responsibility. A DJ is at all the summits, but the musical performances are spontaneous and last about a minute. Over the past three years, 24 summits have taken place in cities across the nation.
The summits are one of the venues for carrying out HSAN’s voter registration project, called Hip-Hop Team Vote. The project divides HSAN’s audience into two groups: 18- to 30-year-olds and 12- to 18-year-olds. The older group is targeted for registration at summits and other events. The younger group, contacted both at summits and through the website, is encouraged to convince their parents and other family members to vote.
Chavis says this effort has yielded surprisingly good results. He cites a model tested by HSAN in Philadelphia, which showed that many youth took their parents to the polls, and that many of those parents had never voted.
Hip-Hop Team Vote extends beyond voter registration. A database keeps track of everyone who is registered through the program. Those people are later contacted through e-mails that urge them to vote. Chavis says the contacts will continue after the election, to inform people about more HSAN events.
HSAN’s funders include Sony, Anheuser-Busch and Pirelli tire company. Pirelli let HSAN use its patented slogan, “Power is nothing without control,” to encourage youth to take control of their political environment.
Although the organization clings to its nonpartisan status, polling from its summits reveal what any hip-hop aficionado would guess. A survey from a summit in Boston showed that 81 percent of those present planned to vote for John Kerry for president, 13 percent were undecided, and only 0.4 percent favored George W. Bush.
Youth want the country to head in a different direction, Chavis says, and they “want to see change in Washington and in their local communities.”
Kids Voting USA
398 South Mill Ave., Suite 304
Tempe, AZ 85281
It began with three Arizona businessmen on a fishing trip in Costa Rica in 1988.
They were stunned to discover that the country’s voter turnout rate was 90 percent, and were sobered by one of the main reasons that many people gave: Children accompanied their parents to the polls. When they returned home, the men started a pilot program in suburban Phoenix to encourage that very activity, adding an educational component.
The project grew into a national campaign called Kids Voting USA, which is carried out in classrooms from kindergarten through 12th grade. The nonprofit says that in the 2000 presidential election year, its educational programs reached 5 million youths, with 1.5 million casting mock ballots in more than 40 states.
Back then, Kids Voting USA took a somewhat indirect approach, using life skills development to encourage youth to take their parents to vote and to vote themselves when they came of age.
Chris Heller decided to take a more direct approach when he became president and CEO last year. “The idea of measuring the impact of the Kids Voting USA program by following students through their first voting experience at 18 years old is new, and has given our organization a clearer focus,” he said.
Kids Voting USA’s classroom activities come under two main components. “Civics Alive!” is designed to be incorporated into social studies class plans, and teaches students about politics and voting, leading up to a mock election. Youth accompany their parents to their local polling places and fill out Kids Voting ballots that replicate the ones used by eligible voters. Their votes are not officially counted, but Kids Voting tallies the results. Heller says the group gets permission in advance from polling site officials.
In “Destination Democracy,” high schoolers participate in activities related to voting and community service. The youths mentor younger students, register voters, work for political candidates, and research and debate public policy issues.
A study at the University of Kansas in 1996 found that first-time voting by 18-year-olds in that state was 14 percent higher in counties with a Kids Voting program than in counties without one. An Arizona State University study in 1996 reported that Kids Voting accounted for a 3 to 5 percent increase in adult voter turnout in Wisconsin, New York, Oregon, Arizona and North Carolina.
Kids Voting USA works with 150 affiliates in 28 states. It says that 4.3 million youths are participating in its programs this fall. For this election, the organization will try online voting in parts of Alaska, Arkansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Most of the $6 million in annual operating costs for the program is raised at the local level, while the national office is run on a budget of about $1 million. The organization’s primary funder is the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Annenberg Public Policy Center
3620 Walnut St.
Philadelphia, PA 19104
One reason for the declining voter turnout among 18- to 25-year-olds, says Student Voices Project Executive Director Phyllis Kaniss, is that they don’t know enough about how elections relate to issues in their own lives.
Research backs her up. In 1999, a study conducted as part of the New Millennium Project of the National Association of Secretaries of State found that many youth don’t vote because they don’t feel informed about where the candidates stand on issues and they don’t believe candidates address concerns of importance to them.
One reason can be found in a report released in January by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, which showed that only 23 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds watch nightly network news, down 16 percentage points since 2000. Other surveys have shown daily newspaper readership continuously declining among young people as well. Many young people report getting their news from comedy programs, such as “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central.
Since youth won’t go to the news, Student Voices brings it to them, through classroom-based civics lessons and activities. It differs from many efforts to increase voting, in that it starts by focusing on issues in local communities, where kids can most easily see the impact of political action and decision-making.
The project, run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, operates in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Newark, N.J., Philadel-phia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Tulsa, Okla.
The classroom lessons are divided into two parts. The campaign curriculum teaches youth to research and analyze campaigns, the candidates and their agendas. The local government curriculum focuses on how youth can use the news and information they get to voice their opinions about local policy issues.
Student Voices draws on partnerships with people and organizations in the local communities. At each site, youth meet candidates for city and state offices, and sometimes for national office. In Chicago, U.S. Senate candidates Barak Obama (D) and Alan Keyes (R) will answer questions from Student Voices youth.
Beyond the classrooms, the program offers an innovative approach on its website. Every local site updates its own pages on the website with the latest developments on mattters such as election coverage and government budgets.
The success of Student Voices will be evaluated through research that tracks the voting behavior of participants after they graduate. Past Student Voices surveys have found that the program increased students’ intentions to vote once they turned 18. “We will just be beginning to see if this is true [that they vote] after this election,” Kaniss says.
The program received $3 million in seed funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts and is funded by a $10 million grant by the Annenberg Foundation. The Carnegie Foundation of New York provided a $500,000 grant to fund a pilot program in Pennsylvania this year to see if the program can be successfully run in suburban and rural regions, as well as in city school districts.