Will Bush Spark a Seismic Youthquake?

Out on the campaign trail, President Bush never tires of talking about how
America is facilitating "the march toward democracy" in Afghanistan and Iraq – evoking the heart-rending images of the 19-year old Afghan girl who cast the first vote in her country's recent election and of eager Iraqis preparing to do "the hard work of democracy."

What he always fails to mention is how hard we are making "the hard work of democracy" here at home – particularly for young voters.

Our voting system continues to be an unhealthy stew of wildly uneven local and state regulations that often confuse first-time voters and lead to ridiculous situations like the one in Ohio where the Republican secretary of state recently attempted to invalidate tens of thousands of new voter registration forms because they hadn't been – I kid you not – printed on thick enough paper. One of the reasons democracy is such hard work is because of the hard work so many put into suppressing it.

A new study by Harvard University shows that more than a third of colleges do not comply with a federal law requiring them to help students register to vote in the states where they are enrolled – no small matter when you consider that students represent more than one percent of the voting population in crucial swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

And when I was speaking at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, students told me about an arcane rule that held that if they changed dorms, they had changed electoral districts and had to re-register – something lots of them didn't know until they got to the polling place, by which time it was too late.

Making matters worse, a number of states have rules that can make it impossible for out-of-state college students to vote absentee, while only six states have same day voter registration, which is crucial when you consider that young voters often don't start paying attention until much closer to the election.

You have to wonder what that first-through-the-polling-place-door Afghan teen would make of all this.

If she didn't know better, she might start to wonder if the powers-that-be didn't prefer that her young American counterparts just stay home on Nov. 2 – and leave the messy business of participatory democracy to them.

The bottom line is that our leaders have done a hell of a job of narrowing the field of engaged young voters. A paltry 36 percent of 18-to-24 year olds bothered to vote in 2000.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that all indications point to a radical turnaround in young voter turnout in the coming election – a turnaround fueled by a force more powerful than all the electoral hurdles placed in young people's way.

Namely, George W. Bush.

He's sparked a youthful uprising unseen since Robert Kennedy's tragically-shortened run for president. Kennedy's 1968 campaign brought together a powerful coalition of progressive young white voters and disaffected young black voters, united in support of his twin platform of fighting poverty and ending the war in Vietnam. Bush's immoral war in Iraq and poverty-spreading domestic policies have brought those same groups together in an effort to topple him.

Bush is the photo negative of Kennedy. The anti-Bobby.

Perhaps most significantly, he has galvanized a whole generation of urban youth that had turned its back on voting. Hip hoppers who cut their teeth on Tupac Shakur's black rage anthems are now registering voters, talking electoral politics, and gearing up to help their grandmothers' friends make it to the polls in Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville. A new generation of political activists has been born.

The effort to turn out young voters has been extraordinary. Both parties, their 527 supporters, as well as a wide variety of high profile, nonpartisan voter registration groups, including Rock the Vote, the New Voters Project, Declare Yourself and the Hip Hop Summit Action Network have all been aggressively pursuing new voters. Rock the Vote alone has registered more than 1.3 million people via its web site and street teams.

Preliminary figures show that voter registration is soaring all across the country, with unprecedented numbers of young voters signing up. In New Mexico, where the 2000 race was decided by just 365 votes, over 50,000 young people have registered. And in Wisconsin, where the 2000 margin was only 5,708 votes, well over 110,000 young voters have signed up.

A New York Times analysis of new voter registration in key swing states indicates that a disproportionate number of these voters are signing up in traditionally Democratic areas. In Florida, for instance, new registrations in areas that sided with Al Gore in 2000 are up 60 percent; in areas that sided with Bush, they are up by only 12 percent. The disparity is even more significant in Ohio, where new registrations in Democratic areas are up an astounding 250 percent from 2000, while in Republican areas they are up by only 25 percent.

Of course, registration is just the first step – it won't mean a thing if the new registrants fail to turn up at the polls or if, once they get there, they are turned away by a 2004 Katharine Harris wannabe.

That's why the key to delivering the youth vote, and with it the keys to the White House, will be which side is most successful at getting out the vote. Studies have shown that the most effective way to do this is through peer-to-peer contact – and with young people this means knocking on dorm doors and repeatedly following up with e-mails, cell phone calls, and text messages.

Which is why the tipping point of 2004 may be reached not by the big, well-funded voter registration efforts, but by the under-the-radar efforts of the hundreds of small, independent grassroots coalitions of young people.

Groups like the League of Pissed Off Voters. Starting out as a handful of 20ish activists who self-published a book, "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office," they proceeded to launch a web site, and began encouraging their friends to get involved in politics. The League now has close to 100 local chapters and over 500 organizers using the Internet and other highly creative, 21st century strategies to spread the word

And unlike the groups focused solely on voter registration, the League is looking to fully engage young people in the political process – not just on Nov. 2, but way beyond.

"This isn't about a short term victory," the League's founder, Billy Wimsatt, told me, "or about any one candidate. It's about creating a community, building power locally, and grooming well-qualified young people to run for office – it's our own version of what the right wing has been doing so successfully for so many years."

In the wake of the 2000 Florida fiasco, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. The warm-and-fuzzily named law – evoking images of boy scouts and kindly state election commissioners helping voters cast their ballots – was going to set uniform national standards for ensuring our voting process is sound.

But thanks to political infighting, White House foot dragging, and a serious dose of underfunding, we find ourselves on the verge of yet another painful post-election ordeal. You can almost hear the starter's cry echoing down K Street: "Election lawyers, start your lawsuits!"

But, with any luck (and lots of IMing over the next two weeks), the unexpected beat of the hip hop generation making its way to the polls will be a giant step in our own march toward a healthier democracy.


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