One hundred and five million Americans are likely to vote on November 2, but will a significant number of Generation Y will be included? Over the past 30 years, voters of every age have increasingly elected to stay home on Election Day, the youngest emphatically so. In 2000 only 36 percent of more than 20 million 18-to-24-year-olds voted, compared to the 52 percent who voted in 1972—and to the 59.5 percent of citizens 25 and older who voted in 2000.
The disaffection from the system is troubling in itself, and it has a nasty rebound effect: Party officials, candidates and political consultants, all of whom are out to win races, don't see young people as an important and reachable political constituency, and so they ignore them. Most problematic in the long haul is that voting—or not voting—is habitual, so the participation of young people in the democratic process is essential. So the question of starting the good habit boils down to: If not now, when?
The New Voters Project, a Trusts-supported, nonpartisan, get-out-the-vote effort of George Washington University and state Public Interest Research Groups, aims to help turn the tide of civic apathy by registering 265,000 young people in six states ( a goal met by press time in late September) and, come November 2, encouraging some 600,000 to get out and vote. The project is face to face, peers talking to peers: 1+1. (The theme of "+1" started at the Oregon State University with buttons provided by the school's president's office and given to those who register. By wearing them, the new voters don't keep getting asked—and they let it be known how un-cool it is to be unbuttoned.)
The effectiveness of the personal approach has been validated by a new book, Get Out the Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout by Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber (Brookings Institution Press, 2004; the grassroots work was supported by the Trusts through the League of Women Voters Education Fund to the Youth Vote Coalition and the research in part through the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.) Their findings: Door-to-door canvassing is more effective and less costly than leaflets and direct mail and even the newer technology of e-mail and robotic phone calling.
Journalists in the six states tested the waters stirred by the New Voters Project, and here are their reports.
Iowa: From the state fair and student orientation By Rachael SeravalliThis year's Iowa State Fair was its sesquicentennial, and even after 150 years, there was a new wrinkle to be found on the fairgrounds. At the secretary of state's booth, and across the fair, New Voters Project canvassers and volunteers were registering people to vote.
The fair is a good venue since it attracts more than a million people in 11 days in August. In addition, the activity had been endorsed by the secretary of state, who put in a good word for registering voters when he spoke at the project's kick-off in 2003.
The state as a whole might be good stomping grounds for the New Voters Project, since its target audience is 18-to-24-year-olds, and according to census data, a significantly higher percentage than average—almost 47 percent—of that age group voted in the state's 2000 election. The problem is that only 60 percent of the 320,000 Iowa residents in this age range are registered.
The project is seeing just what it takes to get even more young people involved. It aims to register 50,000.
Forty percent of the project's target audience attends college, the highest percentage of the six states participating in the project. That makes the cooperation of universities and colleges important if the strategy is to succeed.
Administrator support at academic institutions across the state has made that task seem downright doable. At Iowa State University, for example, administrators have incorporated the project's message into their new-student orientation curriculum. Students also hear about the project in their classrooms and dormitories, where discussion leaders have received training in talking to students about the importance of civic engagement.
"Of course, when students leave ISU, we want them to be well-rounded," says Todd Holcomb, vice president of student affairs there. "But we also want them to be able to understand and debate the issues and cast a vote based on that.
"For young potential voters who are not college students, canvassers stake out sporting events, night clubs or other hangouts favored by young people.
Every four years, Iowa finds itself on the country's political viewfinder early because it's the home of the caucuses, which signal the official beginning of the presidential election season. This year, young people showed up. In the Democratic presidential caucuses, people younger than 30 reportedly cast 17 percent of the vote, compared to 9 percent four years ago. It remains to be seen, of course, if that success has bounce.
The state also has some laws that are conducive to the project's goals. For instance, its voter registration law gives anyone the authority to register another voter in person. And the state has a poll-watching law, which allows citizens to keep tabs on who has shown up. On Election Day, project organizers plan to track younger voters who have cast a ballot on Election Day and contact those who haven't.
Rachael Seravalli, a news-editorial graduate student at the University of Nebraska, interned this summer for The Des Moines (Iowa) Register.
Nevada: The Biology of Voting
By Erin Neff
Kristina Miles walks into the biology classroom on the campus of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas with an experiment that has little to do with the curriculum.
"I'm here to talk about voting," she says.
But these being science and not political science students, Miles starts with statistics.
Just 31 percent of Nevada youth participated in the last presidential election, she says. That's lower than the rate for every other age demographic in the state and lower than the 36 percent of 18- to-24-year-olds who vote nationally.
"The politicians are not paying attention to us because we're not voting," says Miles, who, at 25, appears younger than some of the students in the class. "More than 70 percent of old people vote. It's no wonder the candidates are talking about prescription drugs and Social Security.
"Moments later the students are asking her for voter registration forms, and Miles is collecting information from prospective volunteers.
Peer-to-peer contact like that is how the New Voters Project in Nevada is focusing on its goal of registering young voters in a key battleground state in the upcoming presidential election.
Aaron Coffeen, 18, was sitting in his political science class at the Community College of Southern Nevada when he heard Miles's pitch. Ever since, he's been walking around his campus with voter registration forms.
"Young people really do have issues and they really do care," says Coffeen, a recent graduate of Durango High School. "I go out there with a clipboard, wave it in the air, and within moments I have a flock of people around me.
"Coffeen not only gets satisfaction from registering first-time voters. He is interning with the New Voters Project and writing a paper about the experience for college credit.
The peer-to-peer aspect of the New Voters Project in Nevada is focused primarily on the state's college campuses, but also reaches out to high school students.
Augustin Orsi, deputy superintendent of the Clark County School District, embraces the program for what he says would "help spark civic interest among students." As a result, New Voters Project staff attended each of the high school graduation rehearsals last spring to discuss voter registration.
The message was simple: Before you go out in the world to study or work, your first responsibility is to get out and vote.
Katie Selenski, New Voters Project state director, says her organization has registered about 500 high school students in Las Vegas, Reno and Carson City.
The teens have concerns about politics, ranging from politicians who ignore them to corruption and a feeling that one vote doesn't matter."We address each of those concerns and turn them inside out," Selenski says. "I explain that we could actually become a powerful voting bloc that politicians will listen to.
"Secretary of State Dean Heller, Nevada's top election official, has endorsed the New Voters Project as a key part in increasing youth participation in government. "After this election, young voters won't need to be saying that politicians don't listen to them," Heller says.
Erin Neff is a political reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
New Mexico: It's Albuquerque's Business
By Jim Belshaw
At a salad bar in an Albuquerque restaurant, Mary Beth King-Stokes stood next to two young women who wore T-shirts emblazoned with a message: "I Can Register You To Vote." A self-described "hard-core voter," King-Stokes congratulated them.
"Good for you," she said. "I'm glad you're doing this. At the office, I've been doing some stuff to help out the New Voters Project."
One of the young women said, "That's us. That's what we're doing. We're with the New Voters Project."
King-Stokes said she was impressed.
"I heard them talking to the restaurant manager and asking if they could talk to employees about registering to vote," she recalls. "So even while they were eating dinner, they were on the job."
James Moore, New Mexico director of the New Voters Project, says the project had registered a total of more than 13,000 new voters with 7,000 of those in the 18-to-24-year-old target demographic. The business community in New Mexico had been receptive to the project's presentations and enthusiastic about participating, he adds.
King-Stokes, a marketing specialist at New Mexico Educators Federal Credit Union in Albuquerque, says serendipity played a role in the credit union's readiness to be involved.
"In April, credit unions have National Credit Union Youth Day, which we kind of extend to National Credit Union Youth Week," she explains. "Because of the New Voters Project's target age group and our idea of serving youth, we matched up well. We had to ask our branch staff to keep an eye on things with the registration materials, and they were amazing. I was blown away at how enthusiastic they were. It was an extra project that really wasn't a part of the day-to-day business, and they took it on enthusiastically."
Moore reported the same kind of excitement at several venues catering to young people—a water park where canvassers registered employees and patrons of the park; night clubs, downtown Albuquerque entertainment venues, zoo concerts and a wide array of independent businesses supportive of efforts to register customers and employees.
Six of seven Chambers of Commerce contacted around the state offered their support to the project.
"The Chamber is pleased to partner with the nonpartisan New Voters Project," Terri Cole, president of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce says. "Participation in the election process is an important responsibility of every citizen. Unfortunately, many individuals fail to vote, with that number significantly higher among eligible youth."
In one of the more successful, ongoing cooperative ventures, the Defined Fitness health clubs in Albuquerque have invited canvassers into their four clubs around the city.
General Manager Andee Wright-Brown welcomes the opportunity to work with the New Voters Project. "We just can't take our liberties for granted," she says. "For far too long we've done that, and it's been an awakening for me as well. I'm 35, not quite a Gen X-er. It needs to be put out to young America that they have so much opportunity to make a difference in the world—and not just with voting but with anything they might do.
I think this project goes against the grain of cynicism. I think maybe people are tired of that cynicism. I know I am. We have an ongoing relationship with the New Voters Project and continue to welcome them."
Jim Belshaw is a columnist with the Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal.
Colorado: The Parties Find a Common Cause
By Jim Tankersley
The party was typical for the trendy young Denver set: swank downtown loft, chicken satay appetizers, beer and wine flowing freely. But the purpose was anything but casual—rather, it was to encourage prominent Colorado leaders to cross party lines to support the New Voters Project in Colorado in its drive to register 55,000 young voters.
Based on the project's successful outreach, elected officials have lent the group legitimacy and given registration workers entrée to sites that otherwise would have excluded them. "It's the start," says Ben Prochazka, the project's director in Colorado, "to getting the politicians and their campaigns to care about young people."
Evidence suggests they haven't cared enough in the past. A study commissioned by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, released in April, concluded local political parties don't do enough to get young people to vote—and what they do isn't cool enough to make a difference.
To push 18-to-24-year-olds to the polls, it found, local leaders "have to get hip."
In Colorado, hip starts in LoDo, the downtown loft district where politicians of many ideological stripes pumped the project on a cold night to a room packed with 20- and 30-something lawyers, entrepreneurs and politicos.
Hip, it turns out, is just the half of it. The project has also prompted prominent politicians to help the project with some good-old-fashioned leadership. Lola Spradley, Colorado's Republican speaker of the House, and Joan Fitz-Gerald, the Democratic leader in the State Senate, have pushed colleagues to reach out to more young voters in legislative campaigns.
Other leaders encouraged businesses to drop bans on registration drives on their property. The secretary of state's office helped facilitate a deal with leaders from nearly 25 college and university campuses, who agreed to appoint officials to oversee nonpartisan campus voting drives and involve top administrators in creating a system to register student voters.
"We need to teach them to be involved in government," Drew Durham, a lieutenant in the secretary of state's office, said at a reception announcing the agreement, "because if they aren't, they lose anything worth living for."
Fitz-Gerald, 56, says she felt welcomed into politics when she began phoning voters as a campaign volunteer for Robert Kennedy in 1964. It's different now, she says. Candidates aren't connecting with young adults hard-wired into the Internet, and too many campaigns write them off entirely. "We really haven't gotten them into the system where [voting] is a habit," she says, "where they feel it's part of their democratic responsibilities."
Maybe that's changing. The New Voters Project has registered 20,000 young Coloradans and expects to add 30,000 more when college classes begin this fall. A project-sponsored voter drive in Denver Public Schools snagged 1,000 new teens in the spring. It's impossible to cruise Denver's 16th Street Mall—the gateway to LoDo—without hearing "Are you registered to vote?"
These days, the hip answer is "yes."
Jim Tankersley covers politics for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.
Oregon: Hoopla That's One on One
By Tara McLain
Fortunately for Anthony Fusaro, his mission is written in red letters on his light blue T-shirt.
Strangers read it when they lean toward him, heads cocking an ear to hear what the shy young man is saying above the urban hits pumping from speakers along the street.
"Huh?" they'll say. "Yeah, I'm registered."
Fusaro has been at the Hoopla, Oregon's largest three-on-three basketball tournament, for two hours. He has registered seven young people to vote.
Jeremy Livingston, 19, takes Fusaro's clipboard after deciphering what it is the lanky 18-year-old wants.
"Am I going to be charged for this later?" he jokes, setting the board on his long legs."A charge?" Fusaro says, nearly yelling over "Funky Cold Medina."
"Just kidding," Livingston says, quickly filling the blanks. He stops where many do: party affilation.
"What's a good one to pick if you were me?" he asks."I don't know; you're you," Fusaro replies, adding that the New Voters Project doesn't pick sides.
Livingston completes the short form, and Fusaro shuffles off.
Fusaro had been a high school graduate for just a few weeks before joining the New Voters Project. His first registration was his own. "I was like, might as well," he says between registrants.
He says the job is rewarding, and it's helping with his "personal skills"—including talking to strangers.
Fusaro returns to the New Voter's Project tent location, where he finds Gena Goodman-Campbell connecting tent poles near the Oregon State Capitol steps.
Behind her, a marble sculpture of Sacagewea leads Lewis and Clark westward, toward the New Balance tent.
He's been on his own while Gena walked two miles to the library to print a makeshift sign: "REGISTER 2 VOTE." The normal banner was missing, so she printed each letter on a letter-sized paper and is taping them to the tent.
A political science major at Colorado College, Goodman-Campbell wants work in an Oregon Congressional office while she spends a semester in Washington, D.C., in the fall.
She swigs her water bottle. It's 3 p.m. and pushing 103 degrees. She sets off into the crowd, studying faces.
She moves methodically through the crowd, warmly engaging every potential young voter.
But the Hoopla-goers are getting cranky.
Goodman-Campbell approaches a group of young women.
"Are you registered to vote?" she asks in a chipper voice.
"No," a coiffed girl says flatly.
"Would you like to register?"
"It will take 30 seconds."
"No," the teen says, finally adding that she's not old enough.
Goodman-Campbell pushes on, undiscouraged, and finds Tiffany Kimball, a 20-year-old Boys and Girls Club staff member.
"I feel bad voting if I don't know anything about it," Kimball says.
Goodman-Campbell soothes her: "It's really important for girls our age to vote. Kids our age especially don't vote, and politicians don't pay attention to us."
"It's so nerve-wracking," Kimball says. "I feel so much pressure. If I vote and things go wrong, it's all my fault."
Then she takes the form, fills it, and signs it.
Tara McLain is a reporter with the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore.
Wisconsin: Less Than a Minute to Join the Local Tradition
By Bill Novak
Madison has a long-standing tradition of student activism and political action.
This city of 200,000 is both the state capital and home to the University of Wisconsin, but for many of the 40,000 college students here, the buzz words could be "Get Out the Keg," not "Get Out the Vote."
The New Voters Project has added a new buzz.
Nine young adults working out of a basement office on Regent Street are registering 1,200 college-aged (or older) voters a week, with a Madison goal of 20,000, 85,000 statewide.
Josh Tulkin is Madison's canvass director. Clad in light-blue "Register to Vote" T-shirts, he gives his crew direction, encouragement and a healthy dose of cheerleading.
The registrars work five-hour shifts, standing in front of supermarkets or walking high-volume foot-traffic streets such as State Street or the Capitol Square, clipboards loaded with copies of the state's registration form. "It takes about 45-60 seconds to fill out," says volunteer Nate Schimelpfenig, 21, a Wisconsin-Superior student.
New registrants only have to fill in seven spaces on the form, name, address, etc., but Tulkin and his crew have added a sticky note to the bottom so the registrants can jot down their cell-phone numbers.
"We'll call a day or two before the election to remind them to vote and to give directions on where their polling place is," Tulkin says. "Many young people rely on cell phones; we will too."
Ryan Beld talks to shoppers in front of Cub Foods supermarket on Madison's far East side on a Thursday afternoon. "I'm on course for 45 today, a real good day," Beld says, as he approaches two young people heading into Cub. The young man signing up just moved to Madison from DeForest, a small town north of the city. He's voted before but didn't know he had to register again since he has moved.
"I had one woman, a 58-year-old, sign up earlier today. She never voted before. She said no one ever asked her."
Later he heads over to Warner Park for a Madison Mallards baseball game. The pre-game crowd is in a good mood, mingling outside the gates. Easy pickings for Beld and Schimelpfenig working in tandem.
"This is the first time I'm voting," says 24-year-old Keirsten Knutson of Madison. "My husband, Curt, is going to Iraq; he's in the Marine Corps."
On Friday night, Tulkin, Will Webb and James Grainger, clipboards in hand, hit the bars and street corners of State Street, Madison's celebrated strip for nightlife, partying and just hanging out.
It's a warm night, so State Street is teeming with people out for a good time. Many are in a hurry to get to the next hot club, so they don't stop, but there are plenty who do. "Can we do this, guys?" one young woman says to her friends as she reaches for Grainger's clipboard. "I really need to do this."
Four Madison police officers are leaning on their squad cars along State Street, chatting. Webb shouts, "Are you all registered to vote?" All four nod or give a thumbs up.
The three registrars strike gold in The Pub, a big, crowded bar. Young people put their beer glasses and cigarettes aside to sign up to vote.
"This is something I've been meaning to do, but I didn't know how," says Blake Asmussen, 21.
"I don't think I would have registered if I didn't have a chance to do it tonight," says Joe Kramer, 21.
With the start of fall classes, the New Voters Project's big push on eight University of Wisconsin campuses is on. Jessy Tolkan, 23, the initiative's statewide campus director, expects "an amazing feeling of triumph" on Election Day with the number of new voters: "Young people are beginning to realize in order to make politicians listen to us, they need to vote. Politicians will then be forced to listen to the issues that matter to us."
Bill Novak is a writer based in Madison, Wisc.
The New Voters Project, based at 1533 Market St., 2nd Floor, Denver, CO 80202, can be found on the Web at www.newvotersproject.org.