Getting Out (Half!) ‘96’s Youth Voters

Heather Szerlag
May 1, 1996

MTV, the music channel, is driving a bus across the country spray-painted an eye-stopping red. White and blue and decorated with graffiti-style quotes from Benjamin Disraeli to Kurt Cobain in hopes of registering young voters – and perhaps promoting the sale of musical wares along the way.

Named "Choose or Lose," the rolling extravaganza is packed with interactive computer polling devices to attract more attention, plus broadcast equipment with reporters ready to interview candidates who happen by.

In April, the Washington. D.C.-based National Coalition on Black Voter Participation, a civil rights group of more than 20 years standing, launched Black Youth Vote! - an outreach initiative to raise black youth voter turnout levels that run 25 percent below the overall youth-voting rate. The campaign is working with Rock the Vote, a record industry group founded to combat would-be censors of music lyrics, that registered a whopping 300,000 young people in 1992.

The three operations are among about 100 organizations that have joined in a nationwide, purportedly non-partisan coalition under the banner Youth Vote '96 to mobilize the 18- to 24-year-old electorate. The goal: send 12 million young adults - about 50 percent of the total in that age group - to the polls November 5.

Such a number would be 2 million more than in 1992 and over 11 percent of 1992's total turnout. Thus it could be a force to be reckoned with in the coming elections – especially if President Clinton and his expected Republican challenger Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) go to the wire in a close race.

Against Dole, who is 72, the much younger Clinton conceivably could attract a greater share of youthful voters. Clearly, the youth vote was a factor in Clinton's victory in 1992; he took 43 percent while President Bush received support from 34 percent of 18-24 year olds. "As the votes of young Americans go - so goes America," comments Lany Kidwell, director of the Young Republicans, the recruiting arm of the GOP.

How Non-Partisan Is It?

Therese Heliczer, chair of Youth Vote '96 who also heads the Campus Green Vote student environmental movement, told a meeting of more than 100 student and youth leaders in February at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government: "This is the first presidential election that we've been this organized this early on, I think it's going to be a record year."

She contends the coalition is non-partisan, claiming "we're issues-driven as opposed to having a party line." But what she neglected to add was that most of the groups in the coalition lean decidedly left-of-center.

Among the major players in the youth voter registration campaign are the United States Student Association, the nation's largest student policy group, and Frontlash, a youth group affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the National Coalition of the Homeless and PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups), are concerned about low-income housing, the social safety net, and the environment, respectively. They are hardly advocates of the GOP's Contract with America, nor are their concerns likely to drive them to the polls for Bob Dole.

"My dream is one day to have a homeless black woman elected president on a platform of promising to neglect the suburbs," said National Coalition of the Homeless director Michael Stoops of his agency's not-so conservative agenda.

Rock the Vote's non-partisan stance also has been questioned. The Santa Monica-based nonprofit’s director, Ricki Seidman, is a former Clinton White House staffer, and prominent board member Michael Stipe, lead singer for REM, Calls himself an unabashed liberal.

Country Rocks the Vote, a satellite project working to register country music fans, however, appeals to a more conservative musical electorate, which may help shore up the agency's non-partisan credentials.

But does partisanship really matter in just getting out the vote?

Global Strategies Group, a New York- based polling firm which surveyed 800 18- to 30-year-olds, found 25 percent of young voters were Republicans, 23 percent were Democrats, and the rest were independent.

Motor Voter is also helping push up the numbers of youth voters. Known as the National Voter Registration Act, the law which went into effect in 1995 requires states to offer the options of mail-in voter registration and registration at motor vehicle licensing bureaus. A New York Times poll last autumn found 40 percent of the new registrants to be under 24. With standardized forms and less restrictions, youth voter activists register new voters anywhere from malls to Planned Parenthood clinics.

Though surveys indicate Republican candidates benefit from Motor Voter registration, GOP governors from California to Michigan have failed to fully implement the law. And such family value groups like the Christian Coalition and the College Republicans have yet to undertake any major youth voter registration projects. For reasons that are unclear, registering the youth vote appears to be a preoccupation of more left-of-center organizations.

The 'Empowerment' Factor

In fairness, a lot of what Rock the Vote promotes seemingly has nothing to do with politics - and everything to do with selling music. First organized as a counterforce to music censorship promoting groups like veep lady Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Council, Rock the Vote is famous for its MTV public service announcement campaign. One ad features Madonna in a red bathing suit, exhorting people to vote or "get a spankie." But the nonprofit, according to its program coordinator Mark Strama, also lays claim to shaping the voting decisions of 2 million 18- to 24-year-olds and putting "youth voting on the map."

"With its energy, Rock the Vote fills the gap a little and at a basic level makes it cool to vote," said Michael Dolan, currently a lobbyist with Ralph Nader's Public Citizen consumer group and Rock the Vote's original voter registration director. He notes that in 1992 voter registration drives were about "taking back the system."

Rock the Vote certainly put youth voting on MTV where news correspondent Tabitha Soren began tracking the elections and the youth response to it. MTV interviews with nominee Bill Clinton playing saxophone and President George Bush berating a youth audience on etiquette were soon to follow.

Rock the Vote's Jaime Uteza rides MTV’s "Choose or Lose" bus, running its registration drive, handing out MTV’s voter registration guides (written with Rock the Vote's help) and monitoring the youth polling performed via an interactive monitor - which does everything from taking your photo to administering political surveys electronically — a technological gimmick which seems to fascinate young registrants. Uteza called the registration work MTV and Rock the Vote do (and it is very hard to tell where one group's efforts leave off and the other's begin), "an absolute good." Others are more dubious.

Felicia Davis, director of Black Youth Vote!, said she's skeptical of MTV and Rock the Vote's ability to reach minority youth. "What distinguishes the black vote from the rest is that just coming in and saying 'vote' won't reach them. There's resistance to the idea of rolling through our neighborhoods with high energy hype and saying that makes a difference." Davis added that while her National Coalition on Black Voter Participation will be working with Rock the Vote, "we understand clearly that we really need to do the work" of mobilizing black youth at for election day.

"Only 16 percent of black youth make it to the polls - we want to double or triple that," she said, noting that, "the vote hasn't necessarily made a difference in their lives. Turning out the black youth vote is not our primary objective. We want to educate young people to bring about empowerment."

Davis, an organizer for the Million Man March on Washington last year, says empowerment means taking control of community development funds and local school boards and letting the black youth know voting, "is about making that happen. . . When we explain the culture and the history, the tie in to the vote becomes self-evident."

Dolan agrees that organizations engaged primarily in registering voters without bringing up issues is "procedural, rather than substantive." But he says "every society has to do something [to get] the next generation involved.... (Rock the Vote) is making it an act of rebellion . . . what will become, we hope, a larger sense of responsibility."

MTVs "Choose or Lose" so far hasn't extended much beyond the college campus. Director Dave Anderson said the tour has yet to include a non-college-oriented stop, but that could change later in the campaign.

The Youth Vote '96 organization also seems to have a very college-centric bent. "Candidates don't address young people, they don't go to campuses where the young people are," director Heliczer griped. Candidate Bob Dole's recent trip to Dartmouth would seem to contradict that, but even so, what of the young people not in college, more than half of all 18-24-year-olds? Heliczer acknowledges that, "non-college young people are much harder to reach, the society we live in is very fragmented," and suggests many of them will be reached through Rock the Vote public service announcements.

Registering Non-Collegians

"One of the things we learned in 1992 was the increase in the youth vote didn't encompass African Americans and Hispanics, and primarily involved kids on college campuses," says Rock the Vote's Ricki Seidman. The numbers bear this out; in 1992, 57 percent of college students voted as opposed to 36 percent of non-college youth.

Rock the Vote plans to target non-college youth through more radio public announcements on urban and alternative stations. "It's not as expensive and a lot more grassroots," she said.

And the 88-member Coalition, which includes the Black Student Leadership Network and the National Urban Coalition, hopes to partner with record labels in reaching the youth vote. Black Youth Vote! will also be working with the Southwest Voter Registration Project (SVRP), a 20-year-old nonprofit focused on improving civic participation of Latinos and other minorities in the Southwest, going into high schools with a majority of black students and explaining how the struggle for voting rights was intrinsic to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Organizers have their work cut out for them in trying to raise the number of young Hispanic voters. In 1994, only 9.9 percent of Hispanic youth voted compared with 16.8 percent of black youth and 20.5 percent of white 18-24 year olds.

Each year, the Austin, Tex.-based SVRP goes into 1,000 high schools each year with 20 percent or more Latino enrollment, reaching out to students and explaining the importance of civic participation.

Paul Herrera, who runs its youth initiative, noted that there are 100,000 Latinos in Texas alone turning 18 this year and "we want them registered and in the process."

ACORN and Project Vote work with another traditionally under-represented segment, low-income voters. According to Project Vote, less than 50 percent of people earning under $15,000 are registered to vote, in comparison to the 74 percent registration rate of Americans earning more than $50,000 per year.

ACORN, the largest community organization of low-to-moderate income families and Project Vote, a non-partisan, non-profit voter registration organization that works with local nonprofits, have teamed up to monitor the fairness of states' implementation of motor voter laws. Project Vote had pioneered the strategy of using volunteers to register voters in social service offices and claims credit for having registered over 560,000 low-income voters in 1992 and 147,000 in 1994.

ACORN and Project Vote do not specifically target young people, but the "majority of people on welfare are under 30," noted Project Vote's Lance Uradamo, and they are a group of young people not generally courted by politicians. "Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans target low-income votes," he says.

Who's Really Courted?

Adam Glickman of the New York-based New Party, a national, progressive third party with a focus on local elections, is among those who believe that in reality the youth vote is not targeted at all. "We've been encouraged to be passive, encouraged to sit back and watch eight-second soundbites or the thirty-second attack.... Politicians don't really want us to vote - they're targeting less volatile, less critical segments of the electorate. We still have ideals, we still want to vote for someone and not against everyone else." The New Party's fusion of student, labor and other progressive forces, has won elections for 83 out of the 123 candidates the party has fielded in local races in city councils and school boards the last three years, and its focus on local elections is being considered as an important emphasis by other groups such as Black Youth Vote! and Rock the Vote. "We're getting people to participate locally, where young people can have more of an effect and the impact is clearer," contends Seldman.

But forcing national politicians to pay attention to the concerns of young voters remains a primary concern of Youth Vote ‘96 coalition members.

Michael Dolan believes it is the Democratic Party that best captures the imagination of young voters. "It's the Democratic agenda that will speak more, make more sense… to the cohort looking for community." Pausing, Dolan amended. "I'm skeptical of both parties, frankly, and their ability to communicate in terms young voters will understand and appreciate."

What's happening on the campaign fronts with young voters? Clinton campaign press officer Joe Lockhart said no one has been tapped yet to target youth issues for the campaign, nor is there currently anyone who could handle questions about plans to engage the youth vote in the next election. "We don't have anything like that, because we weren't running a primary campaign," he explained.

Bob Dole seems to be taking the youth vote more seriously. Having already appeared on David Letterman, done an interview (albeit tepid) with MTV's Tabitha Soren and visited a Dartmouth fraternity house, the campaign has brought on board Cory McDaniel, director of Young Americans for Dole, as the national youth director. McDaniel's group was prominent in the primary campaign, surrounding Dole with an aura of youth support and providing numerous photo opportunities.

McDaniel says that although nothing has been finalized yet, a youth advisory panel is being put together, including members of the Young Bloods, a conservative "Generation X" talk show.

"Definitely the campaign realizes the importance of the youth vote," says McDaniel.

Karen Johnson of the Republican National Committee concurred. "The youth vote is something we take extremely seriously."

"I think it's lip service," said Dolan who cracked that McDaniel's title "would look nice on his resume." He added:

"What are they going to say? 'No, we're completely ignoring the youth vote?' Are they polling young people? Targeting them for a direct mail strategy? Are they part of the policymaking decision? The great lie of politics in the campaign is to say to any group that they're important."

But according to McDaniel, the Young Americans for Dole had been doing research and polling among young voters during the primary, and "passing the information along to the campaign."

Perhaps most tellingly, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) paid tribute to the student dent vote after his narrow victory over Republican Gordan Smith in Oregon's closely watched January Senate race. Of the 43.8 percent of 18-24-year-olds who voted, at least 75 percent cast their mail-in ballots for Wyden. The Oregon PIRG office alone registered over 10,000 pro-environmental youth voters, a major pool of supporters for the environmentally friendly Wyden, who won by only 18,000 votes.

That show of force proved to Oregon activists and PIRG member Kaplana Krishnamurthy that the youth vote will have an impact on the ’96 election. “Let us once more be swing voters,” she said. “We are here and we are powerful.”

It may well take a galvanizing issue in the coming campaign to turn on enough young voters to reach the organizers’ goal of 12 million strong turnout – and determine if their growing force can actually deicide the outcome.



Contact: Doug Hess,

(202) 289-2774.

Campus Green Vote

Contact: Therese Heliczer,

(202) 234-5994.

College Democrats

Contact: Mark Nevins,

(212) 479-5189 or

College Republicans

Contact: Joseph Galli,

(202) 662-1330.


Contact: Cheryl Graeve,

(202) 783-3993.

Global Strategy Group

Contact: Alexander Jutkowitz,

(212) 260-8813.


Nonprofit lobby for voter registration reform that works to mobilize social service delivery agencies to routinely offer voter registration.

Contact: Jo-Anne Chaslow,

(212) 854-4053.

National Coalition on Black Voter Participation

Contact: Felicia Dziko Davis,

(202) 659-4929.

National Coalition for the Homeless

Contact: Michael Stoops,

(202) 775-1322.

National Council of La Raza

Largest constituency-based national Hispanic organization and a member of Youth Vote '96.

Contact: Marco Davis,

(202) 785-1670.

New Party

Runs the Summer Democracy project, which offers paid internships to recruit and train young people as political activists.

Contact: Adam Glickman, (212) 302-5053.

People for the American Way

Non-partisan, civil liberties, public interest group which runs the First Vote program, a high school citizenship/voter registration project.

Contact: Sandy Sanford Horowitz.

(202) 467-4999.

Project Vote

Published the report, "Cheating Democracy: Discrimination in the Implementation of Motor Voter Laws."

Contact: Lance Uradomo,

(202) 546-3492 or

Public Interest Research Groups

Contact: Ivan Frishberg,

(202) 546-9707.

Rock the Vote

Contact: Mark Strama,

(310) 656-2464 or

Southwest Voter Registration Project

Contact: Paul Henera,

(210) 222-0224.

The Mapping Project

A Rock the Vote project and one of the largest on-line youth voter participation web pages, that will allow youth to access information about organizations in their area doing voter education. registration and issues-based political mobilization.
Contact: Kristin Wolf,

(202) 778-1460 or

United States Student Association

The country's largest national student organization and member of Youth Vote '96.
Contact: Jeanette Galanis,

(202) 347-8772.

Youth Vote '96 Coalition

Contact: Therese Hellezer,

(202) 234-5993.

Szerlag, Heather. "Getting Out (Half!) ‘96’s Youth Voters."Youth Today, May/June 1996, p. 48.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.