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Voters, Fighters, Citizens, Youth

They showed up, they marked their ballots, so now what? Where does the youth organizing movement go now?
 
 
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“A lot of people are having a hell of a time putting a finger on what to do next,” says Chris Walla, guitarist for the indie rock band, Death Cab for Cutie. Over 50 percent of the youth in this country turned out in this election, and like a good portion of those, Walla is feeling somewhat unmoored. “When you get that far into a cause, it comes as a huge shock when something like this happens,” he explains.

Walla and his band members got involved in the effort to get out the youth vote last February. Soon, they were opening for Pearl Jam on MoveOn PAC’s Vote for Change Tour and playing shows sponsored by Music for America, a partisan non-profit that spent the year building what they call a “movement to unify youth culture and 21st century progressive political participation.”

“I’m certainly going to continue to be involved with MoveOn and Music for America,” Walla told AlterNet. He also reports that Death Cab singer Ben Gibbard is “fired up and writing political songs for the first time, which is really exciting.” For the time being, Walla says he plans to return his home town, Seattle, because he feels it’s where his activism and political influence is most needed now.

As November 2004 winds to an end and progressive artists and activists begin looking forward to turning the page on their calendars, the struggle isn’t about whether to stay engaged in politics, it’s more about how.

To begin with, there are the facts. While the youth vote didn’t deliver the presidential election for John Kerry, as many hoped it would, the turnout was undeniably high. Despite what some pundits and mainstream media sources were quick to suggest in the wake of the election, the percentage of eligible 18-29-year-olds who voted on Nov. 2 was the highest it's been since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972.

This high turnout didn’t just magically occur. Although the stakes were perhaps higher this year than they have been in the last few decades, more youth voted because it was what was asked – and at times demanded—of them. Countless massive efforts—from non-partisan and partisan groups alike – were made to reach out to young people in the months leading up to the election. Organizations like Citizen Change, The New Voters Project, The League of Pissed Off Voters and Music for America took to the streets, to the airwaves, and to concerts and churches, using all means available to spread awareness of the issues surrounding the election and the urgent need to exercise the right to vote.

The exit polls numbers speak for themselves: 21 million 18-29-year-olds voted on Nov. 2. Voters under 30 favored Kerry over Bush 54-45 percent. But what cannot be tabulated is the profound impact that activist groups made in communities all across this country. More than simply registering voters, these organizations started a dialogue among young voters (and potential voters) that might have a lasting effect on the political future of this country.

In the months prior to the election, it was hard to miss Citizen Change’s forceful, pseudo-ultimatum, “Vote or Die.” A project of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Citizen Change didn’t get off the ground until July of this year. Even with a late start, it’s hard to deny that the group did their part in getting out the vote, particularly in African American and inner-city communities. According to Alexis McGill, the group’s executive director, Citizen Change made a “tremendous impact” on youth voter turnout by tapping into pre-existing markets in order to reach their audience. They got DJs talking about politics on the radio (Clear Channel and Radio One are partners of Citizen Change), and they utilized the “mixed tape circuit” in order to spread their “Vote or Die” statement. Citizen Change also spoke to receptive audiences at churches and community centers. In the course of only four months, Citizen Change spent over four million dollars, primarily on street teams set on registering and informing voters. “We went to places politicians didn’t, to the point where we got calls saying people saw more ‘Vote or Die’ posters than posters for either Bush or Kerry,” says McGill.

Many of Citizen Change’s supporters were initially disappointed at the Bush win, but they say they have already begun looking forward. Although P. Diddy had no intention of making Citizen Change a direct conduit to elected officials, the organization is now looking to continue to educate voters on the issues that mattered most in this past election and will continue to reach out to youth of color. As McGill puts it, “the communities have changed ... people have started talking about the issues.”

One thing that’s clear: the conversations this election have spurred are not over. According to Ivan Frishberg, communications director for The New Voters Project, “The natural next step is to keep the connection alive between the elected and the electors, and to build that connection around issues that are priorities for young people.” The New Voters Project focused their grassroots efforts in Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Colorado, and successfully registered almost 350,000 18-24-year-olds and over 100,000 people over 25. As for the fear that voter turnout could drop off in the years to come, as it did after the 1992 election, Frishberg says, “The issues that made this an intense election are still here and our experience is that many young people are not ready to skulk back to the shadows.”

Staying Vocal

One organization that is not about to let young voters become disenchanted with the political process is The League of Pissed Off Voters (a name that speaks to the general voter dissatisfaction after the last two presidential elections). This partisan group grew out of the mounting fervor leading up to the election and became a national organization made of smaller teams of local organizers. Naina Khanna, The League’s national field director says she thinks the group succeeded in their overall mission to enable young people to participate in the election in a meaningful way.

“We had an issues-based agenda,” said Khanna. “We wanted to make politics accessible to young people, to empower people by teaching them about issues that affect their communities.” In order to determine which issues were of particular concern to voters, The League sent volunteers to survey peers and community members.

The local basis for the organization meant that The League used the momentum of the presidential election to galvanize people to get involved closer to home. In many cases, the effects were tangible. In Portland, Maine, for example, The League mobilized a few thousand extra voters on Election Day, which enabled Green Party incumbent John Eder to keep his seat in the State Senate by a slim margin of about 500 votes. It’s efforts like these that prove the potency of young progressives in the electoral process.

Khanna admitted that her voters were devastated by the results of the presidential election, but The League is looking to the long-term in trying to establish a progressive government. “We need a 40-year plan,” Khanna stresses, “that’s what the Right had in this election. ... The movement of newly engaged young people will continue, and we will keep supporting young voters locally to lobby and hold elected officials accountable.” In addition to educating voters on major issues, League members are eager to remind people that their elected officials have a responsibility to them, regardless of whom they voted for.

In the short-term, The League has wasted no time in reenergizing. Over the past weekend, they held public hearings in a Baptist Church and at the courthouse in Columbus, Ohio, where the votes were not completely counted before John Kerry conceded the election. Disappointed voters turned out in scores to tell their stories of Election Day voting difficulties. Khanna says that the weekend ended with a moving discussion on electoral reforms, but recalled that the most moving part was listening to people voice their support for The League for making voting accessible in the elections to come.

Register Them Today for Tomorrow

For many voting was made more accessible this year, but the fight is not over. Music for America has vowed to make accessibility a chief concern in the coming years. Molly Moon Lewis, MfA’s 25-year-old executive director, says that same-day registration must be allowed everywhere, and that MfA began registering voters again the day after the election at various concert venues. MfA took part in or organized 2,304 of the approximately 3,500 music and political events that occurred prior to the election. They hosted renowned groups like Death Cab for Cutie and The Beastie Boys as well as lesser-known and local bands. According to Lweis, The artists reached out to voters by “talking about real issues affecting people ... talking about how unemployment sucked, or how young people don’t like bans on gay marriage, or were screwed out of jobs or benefits and social security, and how they’re oppressed by drug laws strengthened through this Republican administration.”

MfA was also formed within the past year. The group registered 20,000 new voters and engaged over 45,000 youth in the political process by making them members of the MfA community. Of course, as partisan participants, these voters were also initially deflated after Nov. 2. “The day after the election,” Lewis said, “e-mails [from MfA members] began pouring in, saying ‘We’ve cried, we’ve kicked and screamed. We’re ready to work.’”

Already, MfA has begun looking ahead to 2006 and 2008, trying to include people as young as 14 in the process, in order to ensure an even higher voter turnout in the next presidential election. Moon feels that now is the time to use the awakened participatory culture to change politics. They have also kept the dialogue going by opening MfA up to ideas and decisions of its members, who can participate in online forums on their Web site.

Like Chris Walla, Lewis knows that a large percentage of America's youth are looking to share ideas with their peers. As Walla puts it, “It’s hard to know where to start now, but I know there are similarly minded people out there, and I will be finding them.”