As Pissed as Ever, Young Voters Get Organized

I first talked to William Wimsatt for Salon back in 2004 about the book he compiled with Adrienne Maree Brown called "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office: The Anti-Politics, Un-boring Guide to Power," when his newly founded League of Pissed Off Voters had yet to finish off its first year. Back then, the "Bomb the Suburbs" and "No More Prisons" author and one-time grafitti artist (who once tagged his creations as "Upski" but would rather go by the simpler "Billy" nowadays) and his team of tireless activists were waging the uphill battle against the ever-encroaching threat of the Bush administration's second term.

We all know how that struggle turned out, but that's not to say that they didn't put up a hell of a fight. The politically astute organizers of the League of Pissed Off Voters helped push the 18-30 demographic off the couch and into the polls in numbers not seen since Nixon, otherwise known to historians, wonks and Dickens fans as "the ghost of George W. Bush's past."

And that's not all: Wimsatt's plucky League infiltrated the homes and hoods of those that the Bush administration had left for dead (literally, in the case of Katrina), including African-Americans and Latinos, who made up over 50 percent of the new voters on the block. It built scores of local groups that made it their goal to inform individuals who felt locked out of the political process because of their age, color, creed or credit rating, as well as a PAC that drafted up hundreds of thousands of essential voter guides that helped swing much-needed contests, small and large.

Better yet, they stuck around after the election, unlike other organizations that open and close their doors only for election season, as if it were an event of strictly seasonal significance to the rest of the nation (like Halloween or Black History Month, for that matter), rather than the life-or-death, spend-or-save proposition that it was.

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Members of the League's Pennsylvania chapter at an anti-war bicycle rally.

They staged nationally broadcasted investigations into the rampant vote-jacking of Ohio that, at least according to muckrakers like Greg Palast and high-society politicos like Robert Kennedy Jr., handed Bush the 2004 election, just as similar shenanigans in Florida handed him the 2000 election. And although the League of Pissed Off Voters would eventually shed their arch colloquialism to become the more accessible League of Young Voters, its laser focus on the Achilles' heel of neoconservative dominance -- voter ignorance and inaction -- has grown only more accurate.

Since then, its members have grown in numbers, support and strength, and are gearing up for the exceedingly important 2006 and 2008 elections as if their lives depend on it. Because they do.

Rethinking youth empowerment

"I was working at McClymonds High School in West Oakland doing youth empowerment and development work, but was starting to wonder what the point of doing leadership work was when there weren't going to be any changes at the state level," confesses Natasha Marsh, director for the League's San Francisco chapter and overall director for California state operations, about her decision to join up with Wimsatt's spirited crew. "There wouldn't be any jobs or places to live anyway. I wanted people with all this leadership potential to have actual spaces where they could enter society. I really wanted to work with young people to change that systemic problem."

The problem is a major one. The youth of America are the ones who fight its wars, pay its exorbitant college fees and inherit the ballooning debt it creates at the expense of generations yet to be born. Although more wired than ever, they are nevertheless estranged from the political process, one that helps determine their fates at crucial times in their unfolding lives. And exploring and tackling those reasons are paramount to the League's mission to break the cycle of disconnection among young voters.

"More often that not, when I talk to young people who don't or won't vote," Marsh adds, "it's because they don't feel they have enough information and are scared of making the wrong decision. No one is explaining how it all works to them, what the connections are between their young lives, their communities and the overall political system. Voting is one thing, but knowing its connection to why your school is being closed is another."

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San Francisco members gathering in Washington, D.C.

The disengagement isn't exclusive to the youth demographic, either; it's also susceptible to regional biases and differences that make it hard for campaigners and organizers from one city to relate to another. Especially when they only see each other around election season, an infrequency that can cause some voters, even those who share the same general issues and part affiliations, to view each other suspiciously.

"In terms of some of the problems we've had with other organizations parachuting into the state," explains Keegan King, state director of the League's New Mexico operations, "there was this attitude that 'We're from the big cities back East or out West, and we know better.' Whereas our organization is more attuned to the way things actually get done within the state. It's a tricky community, and you have to be a part of it before you can go around and start asking things of people."

Making politics relevant, in the long term

The League of Young Voters usually escapes that sticky situation by empowering its regional offices to take the lead on organizing and action within their respective states, rather than foist an overarching objective at odds with the actual and widely varying needs of the potential voting populace. That type of flexibility gives it the clout it needs to be taken seriously.

"That's one of the good things about it," King adds. "Every state has its own individual issues and campaigns, and what's great about the League's national office is that they don't tell the locals what to do. They leave it up to them to decide which issues are most important to their respective communities."

Which is not to say that the League isn't trying to negotiate that delicate balance between regional relevance and national strategy; it is, albeit in a way that will stitch together its myriad concerns into a high-powered political objective that can be sustained as it expands. "We've grown quickly," says Marsh, "but I think we need to figure out how to further consolidate all of our local work, which is diverse and reflective of its different communities, into a national platform."

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Pennsylvania members at a fund-raiser at the Firehouse.

To that end, the League of Young Voters has accrued enough experience to make a much more qualitative difference than in 2004, when they were beginning to gather ideas and influence. "I think the biggest lesson that we learned is that, because of the constant activity, we have to be prepared," said Khari Mosley, the League's Pennsylvania director, who also serves as the chairman of Pittsburgh's 22nd ward.

"If we had started working on the 2004 election as far back as 2002, we would have been better prepared," he adds. "In the case of that election, we weren't able to get started really until the summer of 2004, especially for door-to-door registration and things like that. If we had more of a perpetual presence, we would have had all of our current relationships with local communities and organizers already built in, and wouldn't have had to basically start from scratch for each election."

Mosley, who spent time as an activist an organizer, as well as a producer, artist and radio and TV host during his stint in college, is optimistic that the deficiencies of the League's past have been solved, just in time for a crucial election needing more disenfranchised and ignored voters than ever. "A system like the one we have in place now," he explains, "where we are continually absorbing people into the process, is one that will help make everything better for the communities we are trying to represent."

Making everything better might as well be the youth demographic's clarion call for the coming election cycle. This year brings us the immensely important midterm elections, which could change the complexion (in more ways than one) of the Republican-dominated congressional and house leadership, and lead as well to the showdown in 2008 for a White House that needs more change than ever.

With all accepted scientific and economic expertise pointing the way to both a possible economic recession and extreme climate change, there has probably not been a more important set of elections in this nation's relatively short history. Future attempts to stave off more fiscal disaster and the potential ravages of global warming depend mightily on the way America decides to forge forward further into this still-fresh new millennium; indeed, some would argue that the future itself, given the United States' status as an aging superpower, is at hand.

Getting there early

So what is the maturing League of Young Voters doing to map out their uncertain future, the one that Bush, Clinton and other political powerhouses of the 20th century bequeathed to them? Ringing the alarm as early as possible, of course.

"We're trying to get into the areas that aren't represented and make sure that they not only register to vote, but are educated on the issues," King explains. "The hope is to mobilize them to get out and get their issues heard. For my state of New Mexico, that means getting out to the reservation and rural communities, as well as the Spanish-language communities, who still don't have enough people talking to them. We have to get in there early before they get bombarded by people from outside their own communities."

Seeing a familiar face armed with data seems to work, no matter the community. Which is why the League of Young Voters refuses to ignore any viable opportunities to bring new voters to the political process, whether they're studying at a library, riding at a skate park, or freestyling in a cipher.

"We've registered voters at breakdancing events," explains Mosley. "Email, of course, is a great way to do outreach, and we've been thinking recently about doing the same with text-messaging."

Makes sense, considering that understanding the youth voter means understanding youth culture, and its means of production, networking and development. That means thinking outside of the traditional ballot box, so to speak, to help young people understand the countless ways in which politics affects their lives, even when they're not looking.

Young people spend their entire lives receiving information in the top-down format, and the more that information tends to be biased in the best case or bullshit in the worst, the less respect their elders get. Lately, with a string of faulty intelligence on everything from the war in Iraq to the safety of elections and a flawless propaganda machine pushing it, that's been the party line the kids have had to swallow. And they're getting seriously tired of it. That seething dissatisfaction with the status quo is the League of Young Voters' toughest accomplice.

"What we're really looking at now is creating opportunities to continue to merge civic and community involvement with youth culture," says Mosley, "and making political activism more of a part of that involvement than ever." Mosely says part of that is having a presence in record stores, clothing stores, coffee shops, places where young people hang out. He adds, "If they see someone hanging out at the places they hang out, buying the clothes that they buy, listening to the music that they listen to, the relationship becomes that much more relevant to them. It's not someone on C-SPAN talking to you; it's the person sitting right next to you, giving you information."

"There are different community organizations that we work with," King elaborates, "and we take it seriously when they have information to impart to us. We research their issues, but also listen to what is being discussed on the news and internet. And I think it's fair to say that the level and quality of our work is at the point where we can be proud, especially given that other campaigns receive thousands of dollars for their coffers. We're doing it right now."

Nice timing, and instructive: If you aren't a fan of the past, then there's no better time than the present to start making things happen. It's a lesson that youth culture should take to heart, given that they are entering an environment that is starting to leak badly in more ways than one. But the bleaker the situation in our deeply polarized nation gets, the stronger the League of Young Voters becomes. And it's stronger than ever.

"It's all coming together," Mosley adds proudly. "It's great to see young people developing and understanding how long and deliberate one has to work to change the political landscape."

To learn more about the League or to get involved with their "Adopt A Swing-State" program, visit

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