Has Rocking the Vote Missed the Boat?
By Matt Taibbi
May 19, 2004
More than ever, the efforts of
corporate-funded youth-oriented media like MTV's Choose or
Loose and World Wrestling Entertainment's Smackdown Your
Vote are part of the scenery in the televised road show of
American presidential politics. But despite a steadily
increasing onslaught of advertising and celebrity events,
young people are more than ever refusing to participate in
the electoral process.
In 2000, 18 to 30 year-olds represented 23
percent of all eligible voters, but cast only 8 percent of
all votes. Those numbers are expected at best to hold steady
this election season.
Does this mean that high-powered media have
failed to encourage young people to vote? Or, worse still,
are these appeals a sham -- a Potemkin village erected by
corporate America to disguise the flaws of a dysfunctional
status quo politics that systematically excludes and
disgusts young idealistic citizens?
The answer, probably, is not exactly. While
academics and activists engaging the problem of youth voter
apathy almost universally agree that initiatives like MTV's
Choose or Lose do very little to address the root causes of
declining turnout -- or may even help keep those root causes
hidden -- most also agree that the situation would be worse
Since its beginnings in 1990, when it was
created in response to growing attempts by various
censorship movements against rock artists, MTV's Choose or
Lose initiative, working in close partnership with the
non-profit organization Rock the Vote, has led a
celebrity-studded effort to engage young people in the
political process. Using public service announcements by
such stars as Eddie Vedder, Queen Latifah, Aerosmith, R.E.M.,
Madonna and dozens of others, the group scored some
impressive accomplishments in the early nineties. Among
other things, it led the fight to get the so-called
"Motor Voter" National Voter Registration Reform
Act passed, and its get-out-the-vote efforts during the 1992
presidential race were largely credited with helping reverse
a decades-long decline in youth voter turnout, as the number
of young voters rose 20 percent and were a significant force
behind Bill Clinton's election.
This election season, Rock the Vote stepped up
its high-profile efforts to register new young voters,
sponsoring a Democratic presidential debate in Boston,
holding a televised Rock the Vote Latin Grammy party,
launching an online voter registration drive, offering free
Ben and Jerry ice cream giveaways and planning a series of
automated celebrity phone calls to target young voters. Its
goal? To register some 1,000,000 new voters by the fall.
"We've registered 225,000 as of
May," says Jay Strell, communications director of the
Rock the Vote campaign. Rock the Vote has raised $5.5
million from corporate, foundation and individual donors,
including 7UP, Motorola and the Pew Trust. "We need
corporate partners to help us do the good work that we
do," says Strell, who adds that there also has been
unprecedented levels of coordination between the various
youth and grassroots organizations that register young
voters and encourage them to turn out come Election Day.
Mixing Celebrity with Grassroots
Despite the show of civic-mindedness,
full-time political activists often struggle to say
something nice about these strategies.
"Well... [Rock the Vote] does, uh, what
it does well," says Adrienne Brown of the League of
Pissed-Off Voters, an innovative youth group that encourages
young people to take a permanent, regular interest in
"Well, MTV has its own way of doing
things, I guess," says Rob Ritchie of the Center for
Voting and Democracy, which like Brown's group appeals to
young voters by helping them agitate for electoral reform
and systematic change.
"It has a role," says Veronica De La
Garza, Executive Director of YouthVote, whose coalition
includes over 100 groups (among them Rock the Vote) and
represents the single largest coordinated effort to get
young people to register. "We need those big media
organizations to get the basic message out. But they have to
work hand-in-hand with other groups that are actually
working on the ground."
Complaints about the big-media groups
generally center around two themes.
The first, which has been embraced in practice
by grassroots groups like Brown's and Ritchie's and also
supported by new academic research by Yale University, is
that media/celebrity-based appeals to young people are
extremely ineffective, compared with face-to-face appeals
from friends and peers.
Donald Green, a political science professor at
Yale University, published a book in conjunction with the
Brookings Institution called "Get Out the Vote!"
which cited experiments held across 18 states over a span of
five election seasons. He found that activist campaigns
which used personal contacts and telephone calls from peers
helped increase voter turnout in some elections by 8 to 12
percent, while even well-funded campaigns that use the
methods favored by Rock the Vote -- viral e-mail campaigns,
television advertising, celebrity appeals and other media --
had almost no effect on voter turnout.
"[The big media groups] would seem to be
neither the problem nor the solution," says Green.
"But what does seem clear is that the most important
factor in whether or not a person registers to vote is the
presence of a personal connection encouraging him to do
Green is reluctant to criticize the specific
big-media groups targeting young people, but he does say
that the general trend in politics to rely more on media and
other impersonal forms of communication may have contributed
significantly to voter apathy. "Politics have moved in
that direction because campaigns are not particularly
interested in increasing voter turnout," he said.
"They're interested in winning, and those methods have
tended to be the ones used, because they're cost-effective.
Campaigns are content to win with low turnout."
Green also believes that the actual message of
candidates and activist groups is, ironically enough,
probably irrelevant as a factor in encouraging young people
"I've never seen any evidence that the
specific message matters," he says. "What does
matter is the presence of a personal contact."
Staying Hip While Avoiding the Issues
Activists like Brown, Ritchie, and David Smith
of the grassroots group Mobilizing America's Youth (MAY)
agree with Green's emphasis on personal interaction, but
disagree with him about the message. Their view represents
the other chief complaint about groups like Rock the Vote
and teh related MTV Choose or Lose initiative: that they do
nothing to address the disgust and cynicism over an
intractable two-party system which remains, their view, the
primary obstacle to energizing youth. In this view, groups
that merely encourage young people to choose between
existing evils run the risk of further turning off young
"I don't think you can have real activism
without it being centered around at least some sort of value
system," says Brown. "Young people are hungry for
something to believe in, for real change. Groups like Rock
the Vote don't offer them anything along those lines."
Like all non-profits, Rock the Vote can't agitate for any
one party or candidate. But the political issues it chooses
to highlight are notable for their broad, inoffensive,
fit-on-a-t-shirt character. Digging into its million-dollar
budget, Rock the Vote encourages kids to worry about free
expression, youth violence and crowded classrooms. Issues
like war, commercialism, and corporate media control are
nowhere on the map. Rock the Vote's aesthetic trades heavily
on a punk/hip-hop anti-establishment look, but its message
is strictly work-within-the-system: vote every four years,
wear a $14.99 "Give a Shit" t-shirt, watch MTV and
buy 7UP and Motorola phones. There is not much difference,
in terms of marketing approach, between Rock the Vote's
appeals to vote and its parent company's appeals to shop.
Brown's group encourages young people to
campaign for electoral reforms like instant run-off voting,
which would allow voters to rank their electoral choices.
Already used in several municipalities across the country,
including San Francisco, voters under this system could for
instance choose Nader, but if he loses, the vote would
automatically be passed, say, to Kerry.
"I think that is the bigger issue,"
she says. "Many young people feel that there is not
that much difference between the two parties. As a result,
they feel like they have very little power to change things.
If they could break some of the constraints of the
winner-take-all system, they would feel more motivated to
Ritchie agrees. "Frankly, no, I don't
think you can really address the apathy problem without
there being some sort of ideology," he says. He adds
that the slick marketing techniques favored both by the
major candidates and by the big-media youth groups can
increase the distaste of young people for politics in
"Young people have good B.S.
detectors," he says. "They don't want to feel
'Capturing' Youth at Street Level
Smith, who used to be an organizer for Rock
the Vote, left that organization to form MAY, which forms
cells of young people across the country that help re-create
the political networks that were lost when politics became a
more top-down, media-based effort.
"Working with Rock the Vote, it was a
quote-unquote name brand... it was a great
door-opener," he says. "But at some point I found
that handing out Winterfresh gum, or occasionally there
would be CDs... the organized activism wasn't there, it was
more of a product."
Smith believes that one of the reasons that
young people don't vote as much as adults is that "they
have so many other things going on in their lives"--
that they've just moved out of their homes or gone away to
school, or are displaced somehow, and lack the community
roots they need to feel energized. MAY, which uses an
Amway-type system to attract interlocking groups of peers to
get together to talk about politics and work on local
campaigns (members seek to attract 10 people apiece to the
movement, at which point they become "teammates"
and lead their own groups), seeks to "re-create that
community," he says.
"What's going to get you to get up off
that couch is someone you know... some sense of being
involved with something, and working to find the way that
politics touches your own life," he says. His group,
which successfully lobbied the State of California to spike
a proposed increase in state tuition fees (saving California
students $100 million), and also works to change laws like
curfews in Orange County, is effective because it shows
young people how to have an effect on their day-to-day
existence. Just voting, he says, can't teach that to young
"Even just voting isn't strictly being
civically engaged," he said. "There's a
Despite all of this, Rock the Vote and other
organizations have begun an ambitious campaign called 20
Million Loud, which seeks to use a variety of promotions to
increase youth voter turnout for the 2004 race by two
million voters, to 20 million. Along the way, there is
evidence that the big media groups, while perhaps not
changing much in the area of ideological appeal, are finally
dispensing with their traditional reliance on media to get
out the vote. Rock the Vote has organized 75 street teams to
encourage face-to-face contact, and other groups in the 20
Million Loud Coalition, including the New Voters Project (an
offshoot of the successful grassroots organizer Public
Interest Research Group), are relying almost exclusively on
street teams and door-to-door efforts to help meet their
targets. Green's research, which has been widely publicized
by groups like YouthVote and CIRCLE, another
youth-and-politics think tank, may have turned some heads.
All of which may only mean that mainstream
youth activism is changing its methods, not its politics.
While corporate groups streamline their efforts to
"capture the youth vote," it's going to remain up
to independents like Brown and Smith to help young people
capture real power.
"We're not wild animals to be
captured," says Brown. "Everyone's hungry for us
as numbers. We're out for the qualitative change. And no one
can make that possible but us ourselves."