With New Tools, Record Number of Young Voters Choose (and Lose)
With New Tools, Record Number of Young Voters Choose (and Lose)
BY Jed Miller | Monday, January 10 2005
In the late hours of November 2, it appeared that youth voter outreach, like John Kerry’s candidacy, had shown signs of life but fallen short in the final test.
The media seized on the notion that young people stayed home. On November 5, a USA Today headline proclaimed "Youth Vote Didn't Rock." Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg crowed "the youth vote is bunk. It's a mirage. Fools gold. ... A media confabulation. Nonsense. Hooey."
But Kerry’s loss may have overshadowed successes in youth outreach the same way that Kerry's primary victory over Howard Dean overshadowed Dean’s precedent-setting successes in grassroots campaigning.
The presidential campaigns, name brands like MTV and P. Diddy, and hundreds of partisan and non-partisan groups worked furiously to get out the youth vote, relying heavily on the Internet and wireless technologies.
"There’s no question that the Internet played a big role for us," said MTV’s V.P. for Public Affairs Ian Rowe the week before the election. Governor Dean may not have won Iowa, but "he definitely affected how technology is used, and since young people are usually first users, they’re definitely engaged when candidates use those technologies."
Though the real numbers may have been underreported in the press, there is some indication that the massive youth outreach succeeded. Nearly 21 million people under 30 went to the polls in November, according to the Maryland-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
CIRCLE says turnout for voters under 30 rose more than 9% between 2000 and 2004, and reached the "highest levels in more than a decade." The 9% figure is also four points higher than the estimated 5% increase in overall turnout reported by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
One reason for initial lukewarm reports may be media confusion over the difference between youth turnout and the youth "share" of the electorate, the percentage of all voters who were under 30. That figure was either the same as in 2000 or slightly higher, according to Levine.
CIRCLE has struggled to clarify that the 2004 youth share is itself noteworthy. "It shows that the increase in youth turnout kept pace or surpassed the increase in other age groups," said Levine. "For the whole population, turnout rose to a level not seen since 1968. Young people kept up with that phenomenal rise."
Levine said he actually suspects that the youth share rose, due to a drop in youth percentage of overall population, but he’s waiting for the U.S. Census to release post-election statistics to bolster that claim.
Even advocates of youth engagement like Levine acknowledge that the available data does not confirm the impact of youth outreach, online or elsewhere. But with the recent surge in youth voting initiatives, and the undisputed surge in youth turnout, the groups who tried to mobilize young people can count this election as a milestone in experimentation, if not effectiveness.
Making Registration Rock
The most popular online tools were voter registration modules that provided state-specific registration forms and information. Rock the Vote was the big kid on the block in registration. They reported 1.4 million downloads of their forms this year, with 75% of those by people between 18 and 30.
"We kind of killed it this year," said Jamie Kantrowitz of Rock the Vote—meaning "killed" in a good way. Kantrowitz was Rock the Vote's online strategist throughout 2004. The L.A.-based organization, founded in 1990, uses a combination of media, on-the-ground and online programs to call young people to action, and to make the action, in Kantrowitz’s words, "accessible, sexy, and enjoyable."
"Our goal was to register people online," Kantrowitz said. "We don't want to tell young people what to do, we want to empower young people to do what they want, and give them the tools to do it."
This year those tools included mobile phone and SMS (Short Messaging Service) campaigns, kits to create on-campus events with banners, posters and gear, a station on Radio@Netscape, a "Rock the Vote Instantly" campaign that added links and logos to AOL Instant Messenger, a "street teams" program to mobilize volunteers at concerts and local events, with help from a feature-rich online support area, and "online street team" guides for using email and blog posts to get out the word and the vote.
The mobile phone program had over 125,000 users, according to Kantrowitz, and Rock the Vote’s email list grew from under 200,000 to nearly 1 million in the six months before the election.
The registration tool was the headliner, however. Any group could download the module for free from rockthevote.com and add their own logos and language. Rock the Vote lists over 1000 organizations as registration partners, from Kenneth Cole and Taco Bell to the Jake Gyllenhall Fan Club and even smaller sites like jennypooky.com.
The creators of the popular HotorNot site launched a "VoteorNot" area with a sweepstakes for two $100,000 prizes. They say over 100,000 people registered, all using the Rock the Vote tool, a per registrant cost of $2—one-third of what it generally takes to register people in face-to-face canvassing.
The term "voter registration tool" isn't really accurate, since the module did not enable online registration, only quick access to the proper forms. You still had to fill one out, sign it, and submit it yourself. Rock the Vote’s sloganeering tried to give the offline work a backbeat, streamlining the instructions to "Fill it and print it. Lick it and mail it."
If the tool didn’t knock on your door or drive you to the polls, it did make the first steps of registration exponentially easier, by providing state-specific registration forms, mailing addresses and accurate deadlines in less than three clicks.
The technology community can get caught up in breathless talk about newer tools and better feature-sets, but advocates and campaign operatives spend their days facing simple logistical challenges: gas money, phone lists, staplers. In this push-pin market, any system that increases reach and efficiency will be welcome, provided the savings in time and money justify the expense.
The team that built the free registration tool had savings and ease-of-use foremost in their minds, according to Dan Carol, who founded the Carol/Trevelyan Strategy Group (CTSG) in 1993 and was involved in the tool's creation.
Carol says that at a June 2003 meeting, held prior to the progressive "Take Back America" conference in Washington, D.C., several people were asking for the same campaign tools to support voter registration, manage voter files and coordinate house parties, among other things.
While CTSG was not in the business of building coalitions or movements, Carol said in this case "the vendor became the convener, because people were asking for the same thing over and over... Our view was that if people aren't providing leadership, we're going to provide it."
Seeking to address these common needs, CTSG shifted into the role of network-builder, which Carol said was "good business, good leadership, and a pain in the ass."
The registration tool was conceived in conversations with Michael Evans and Jehmu Greene of Rock the Vote. It seemed like a logical investment in the emerging network of tech-hungry advocates.
Carol said it took about 400 hours of programmer time to deliver the first two versions of the tool over the course of six weeks. He would not specify the price tag, but estimates that "it probably cost under six figures."
The tool's power is its efficiency, its customizability and, perhaps most important, its shareability. "I think that that set us apart," said Kantrowitz.
Creating a co-brandable tool was a much better use of funds than online ad buys, Kantrowitz added. Why buy banners "when we can spend the money to provide a tool for registration for free, and give partners a chance to get emails in the process?" She was also quick to acknowledge the "immersive advertising" effect of a Rock the Vote co-brand on 1000 partner sites. (Clearly there's a difference between network-centric and foolish.)
"Rock the Vote made it as simple as possible" to help people register, said Owen Leimbach, web producer for MTV's "Choose or Lose" programs. Kantrowitz says MTV and BET combined to send over 60 thousand users to the registration tool during 2004.
Tuning the Tools to the Times
In the lead-up to November, the "Choose or Lose" area was one of the top five high-traffic sections of MTV.com, according to Ian Rowe, a threshold he called "huge, especially for a pro-social campaign." MTV’s "20 Million Loud" initiative also launched Meetups in over 60 cities, Rowe says. The program's homepage on Meetup.com claims 16,738 members in 462 groups worldwide.
Besides Meetups and registration forms, MTV's election programming included on-air specials, PSAs, integration throughout MTV's news segments. Tech-based projects included cell phone polls and news alerts, partnerships with Chat the Planet, and a steady flow of youth comments in the "You Tell Us" area.
In an elaborate "PRElection," MTV allowed people of all ages to vote for president using email and cell phones. After a well-promoted kick-off on MTV's "Total Request Live," the PRElection ran for three weeks during October. The network says over 205,000 people registered for the PRElection and over 97,500 (or 48%) voted.
Kerry won the PRElection with 61 percent of the vote. Bush had 39 percent. It is interesting to note that the race was closer among mobile phone voters, who gave Kerry 59%, while online voters chose Kerry over Bush, 65% to 35%.
The PRElection results also anticipated Kerry's victory among young people in the actual election. The under-30's were the only age group that preferred the Senator, according to CIRCLE, the Associated Press and other sources. Among voters 18-29, Kerry won with 54% to Bush's 45%. Among 18-24 year olds, the margin was even higher, at 56-43%.
Kerry's youth victory may explain the eagerness of conservatives to dismiss or downplay the youth factor. His margin among young people was the highest for a Democrat since youth chose Bill Clinton over Bob Dole by 18%, according to CIRCLE and national exit polls. The same sources put the 2000 youth split at 48% for Al Gore, 46% for Bush and 5% for Ralph Nader.
Josh Koenig of Music for America said the 2004 youth tally also made the election "a heartbreaker" for progressive groups like his own. "But having gotten over the anguish, we're like 'Fuck, we did our job,'" he added. "If everyone who was working on the older people had done their job, we would have won this thing."
Music for America represents the state of the art in grassroots mobilization around live concerts. Using an elegant customization of Drupal, the Open Source platform beneath CivicSpace and Advokit, Koenig and his partners built a blog community and a toolkit to coordinate hundreds of local volunteers.
Volunteers for MfA set up tables at concerts by participating bands, usually in 300-500 person venues. Koenig said "two energetic people can touch 500 people over two to three hours."
Music for America says it collected nearly 50,000 emails during 2004, and coordinated volunteers at over 2,400 shows.
Koenig speaks passionately about the importance of peer-to-peer connections between volunteers and fans. He contrasts the authenticity of local kids approaching their peers at a local club with "manufactured" events like Bruce Springsteen's pro-Kerry "Vote for Change" rallies, which "would not happen except for the campaign."
Several pro-Bush sites targeted young voters too, including Redeem the Vote and Conservative Punk, founded "to help inform America's youth about the upcoming election and let them make up their own minds, rather than push liberal sentiment down their throats."
Like MTV's PRElection, Music for America built its program around the existing elements of young people’s lives, in which cell phones, rock concerts, television and, most importantly, other kids define the landscape.
Similarly, many of 2004’s innovative programs to reach young voters relied not on new technologies, but on snazzy, logical uses of tools that already existed.
For rockthevote.com, the design firm Mekanism created a simulated 3-D environment where young voters can navigate around fire escapes and rooftops, reading short issue briefings on youth-oriented topics while an acoustic alternative rock soundtrack plays.
The policy area on 18to35.com offers "the most current information on young adult policy issues." The non-partisan research group Public Agenda created a series of issue-based voter guides for young people called "First Choice," which provided briefings on terrorism, jobs, gay rights, health care and college costs, among other issues.
The presidential campaigns also posted downloadable issue guides, written to help young people mobilize their peers. Bush, Kerry and Nader all had student organizing areas online, including grassroots tools, blogs and merchandise.
The Bush site was especially successful with a series of anti-Kerry games, including "John Kerry: Tax Invaders," "Kerryopoly," and "The Flip-Flop Olympics," the last of which was played 800,000 times and forwarded 40,000 times, according to Bush eCampaign Manager Chuck DeFeo.
Modern Tools, Classic Delays
The Mobile Voter Project, Cingular Wireless, and Rock the Vote Mobile all used cell phones to rally young voters. Cingular collected posts and pictures from journalism students on the campaign trail, with moblog tools from textamerica. Rock the Vote conducted wireless polls, promoted Sorrent's popular Bush/Kerry boxing game, and urged young people to report any Election Day problems using their mobile phones.
Mobile Voter Project creator Ben Rigby said they "started out wanting to do direct registration and whittled away functionality." The system delivered in August sends state-specific registration information to new members via email. Members also receive Election Day reminder messages.
In Mobile Voter's model, a single announcement at a concert or rally can drive huge portions of the audience to send messages immediately, become members and receive registration materials.
Rigby said the "main hurdle" was raising money. They began work in February 2004, but "spent a good many months refining the concept, making it simpler and doable. By the time we had our implementation plan, we were too late to go after traditional financing."
Efforts like Mobile Voter or the music-sharing project MustVote may have struggled without the momentum that name brands like Rock the Vote could create. MustVote’s Brian Klein says he was surprised to find resistance not from participating bands like Pearl Jam and Radiohead, but from Napster, who dragged their feet delivering the business and technical pieces of the deal.
Klein needed 50,000 unique Napster download codes to support the MustVote’s basic offer: exclusive tracks for members who convince friends to register to vote. But he says Napster’s marketing department didn't pick up the tempo and create the codes until MustVote appeared on MTV news. By then it was mid-September and the project was well behind its early summer launch schedule.
Even inside MTV, routine technical challenges made some cool ideas impossible. Leimbach says the network had conversations with blog pioneers Six Apart about a feature-rich discussion community on MTV.com, built on Movable Type. MTV scrapped the plan due to concerns over labor-intensive customizations, and questions about Movable Type's compliance with their standards for web security.
Enthusiastic youth advocates like Leimbach at "Choose or Lose" and Klein at MustVote faced many of the same hurdles that any tech team would face. Time and capacity may have crippled some of the best innovations in tech-driven youth outreach. In the crunch climate of an historically intense election, turnkey solutions like Rock the Vote's registration tool appear especially valuable to programs strapped for money and personnel.
"In the last 60 days I saw so many people who wanted to do stuff that was smart," said Dan Carol. "There were a lot of good ideas and a lot of stuff was built." Now, he said, the field needs time "to understand, consolidate and learn more about what we have."
Delivering Involvement as a Pirate Signal
None of the youth programs interviewed for this article had definitive answers for how to measure their effect on the final vote. The estimate of 20.9 million voters under 30 is the only hard number to hold up against the countless claims of savvy youth outreach.
In battleground states, where GOTV efforts were the most intense, CIRCLE says youth turnout rose 13% from 2000 levels, more than double the 6.3% overall increase estimated for battleground states by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
Levine believes the battleground statistics show that the focus on youth outreach made a difference. "I think they would have been left out of the turnout increase," he said, "if they hadn't been deliberately targeted."
He acknowledges, however, that a direct connection between outreach and turnout is difficult to confirm. "The numbers by themselves don't prove that the youth mobilization work succeeded," he said. "We need good program evaluations."
A post-election study by the youth site Declare Yourself offered at least preliminary indications of success. Of 800 adults who downloaded registration forms from the site, 83% of users under 30 say they actually registered, and 76% of those say they voted.
The huge range of techniques deployed to reach young people could indicate the need for clearer strategies and fuller toolsets. Rowe and Carol both expressed impatience for a tech-enabled future when registration and even voting can happen entirely online.
At the same time, the diverse number of experiments may demonstrate that countless aspects of young people's lives can be platforms for civic engagement.
"Kids don't see a way to interface with politics," said Leimbach. "If you could find a way, you'll see kids participation in politics going through the roof."
"For technology to increase participation," said Levine, "it can't just be convenient, it has to actually change people's ability to locate themselves on the political spectrum, and their sense that they can make a difference."
"All of organizing is local," said Koenig. Music for America looks for events and venues that are indigenous to local communities. "We don't hijack it," Koenig said, "we piggy-back, injecting the discussion into a forum that already exists... We're not having rallies, we're having concerts and parties and fun and saying part of that—part of being a young person in America—is giving a shit."
From Levine's perspective, the level where young people must be reached is the level where they harbor their self-image as political or non-political beings. Seen in these emotional terms, the value of outreach via concerts and cell phones becomes clearer: Those are the places where passion already drives behavior, and shapes self-image.
DeFeo's team, for example, signed up over 27 thousand Bush volunteers during March Madness, by creating tournament-like "brackets" for each state and making young organizers compete to recruit the most students.
When Eminem launched his Bush-bashing anthem "Mosh" just before Election Day, the video appeared first on the web site of co-producer Guerrilla News Network. Eminem and video director Ian Inaba delivered a seething call to the voting booth as a pirate signal atop the more familiar experience of an online video release.
Young people may be getting more attention from voting groups, but they have not shed their historical doubts about the political process. Even Philip Harris, a highly engaged teen voter, warns advocates to keep the tone and the tempo of their outreach as youth-savvy as possible.
Voting information "is NOT good regardless," said Harris, who lives in Minnesota. "It is only good when it targets that audience that will be most affected by it."
Harris maintains several web sites and discussion boards to help his classmates stay active in their school and local community. "I don't want to read boring stats or how Bush or Kerry is going to help the people that are 80 years older than me," he said. "I want to learn about them in an engaging way. ... Maybe a 'match the idea with the candidate' Flash game? That would be cool if done correctly."
Campaigns must reach young people at the level of everyday life, said Koenig, "and everyday life is political." He believes the news media "drives cynicism and drives despair," and that people must look elsewhere for experiences that kindle a sense of values.
Koenig says the hunger for a values-driven experience may also be what makes music a good platform for politics, especially progressive politics. Like the churches that help fuel the grass roots of the religious right, concerts have "a mystical component... something that drives people on a non-intellectual level. You can't win the war of ideas if you only stay in the mind. You have to reach people's hearts."
Jed Miller is director of Internet programs for the American Civil Liberties Union. He was previously director at the New York nonprofit Web Lab, where he oversaw online dialogues on civic issues and social change. Jed has written about digital democracy and Internet culture for PlaNetwork Journal, the Kettering Foundation, the E-Volve Foundation and others. As interactive editor at The New York Times on the Web, he managed all reader forums and created the web discussions for the newspaper's Pulitzer-winning 2000 series on race in America. His site and personal blog are at www.jedmiller.com.
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