Rock the Vote has indeed been rocking the vote. Young people are voting in numbers rarely seen before, and Rock the Vote, which encourages young people to get involved in the political process – particularly through voting – has played a significant role.
In the 2012 election, for instance, its goal was to register 1.5 million voters. It’s shown it can do so. In 2008, Rock the Vote registered more than 2 million voters.
What’s the secret when it comes to reaching young people who historically have shied away from the voting booth? Look at the progress that’s being made. In 2008, the percentage of people age 18-24 who voted was 48.5 percent. In 1988, that number was a woeful 39.9 percent.
Chrissy Faessen, Vice President of Communications and Marketing for Rock the Vote, says adapting to the changing habits and likes of young people is key. “You have to continue to stay on the cusp of how young people are communicating,” she said.
It may be hard for some of us to grasp this, but Rock the Vote is now 21 years old. In the early 1990s, when Rock the Vote was founded, a mobile phone was a novelty that was not yet a essential part of modern living. Office computers, yes. But home computers? No, not yet the norm. Facebook was an idea still more than a dozen years away.
At that time, Rock the Vote reached young people through MTV and VH1 and used celebrities such as Madonna to motivate young people to action. Here’s Madonna wrapped in an American flag in Rock the Vote’s first public service announcement.
Rock the Vote continues to recruit pop culture icons to promote the importance of voting. It’s a tried-and-true tool. Miley Cyrus, for instance, leads this 2012 star-studded Rock the Vote production. The production value is, well, a wee bit better than the one featuring Madonna.
But the organization, which is nonpartisan and reliant on grants and donations to operate, has greatly broadened its outreach, notes Ms. Faessen. It realizes that today’s young people are on the forefront of taking advantage of new communication technologies, and Rock the Vote is very much plugged into that.
For instance, when Rock the Vote registers young people to vote, it also asks for their mobile phone numbers, Ms. Faessen said. That mobile phone list is nearly unrivaled in scope, she said. In addition to engaging young people with contests and political quizzes through the devices, Rock the Vote also reminds the young people when and where to vote through texts.
Ms. Faessen said the method has increased voter turnout by as much as 4 percent among young people. “It’s extremely effective.”
But that’s just one component of its outreach, she noted. Rock the Vote could be considered the very model when it comes to using social media to attract and engage its target audience of young voters. Check out this partnership with Splunk Inc. And check out Rock the Vote’s use of social media regarding its “We Will” campaign.
Rock the Vote also noticed how today’s young people are big into computer gaming and so it even formed a partnership with Microsoft to encourage voting through its Xbox system.
The organization also performs outreach in more traditional ways, too. For instance, last year, it started Democracy Class, in which it reaches out to schools to teach students the importance of voting and taking part in the Democratic process. The one-class period is taught on March 23, the anniversary of the passage of the 26th amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18.
The educational outreach is needed because civic classes have been all but eliminated from public high schools due to budget cuts, Ms. Faessen said. “We want to give educators all the tools they need,” she said.
But one can’t help but wonder: Why does it take such effort to motivate young people to vote? Why are they not compelled to take part in such an important civic duty naturally? Ms. Faessen believes politicians rarely target these young people, so they don’t feel as if they are even a part of the process. They also don’t have much money, so they can’t donate as much as more established voters. Politicians are apt to respond to those funding their campaigns. And registering can be difficult and taxing as well. Young people are more mobile than the rest of the population. They may go to college in a different state from where they originally registered and get stumped by yet another new system.
“The voting system was not built for the 21st century,” she argues. “We’re trying to bring the system into their world.”
The effort is working. Voter turnout among young people has increased in each of the past four election cycles. This year’s election turnout was uncertain, though, because young people are, like so many other voters in the nation, discouraged about the economy. They are struggling financially and this article, argues that leads to a lower voter turnout.
Ms. Faessen said the economic situation has left many young people discouraged. “People expected immediate change,” she said of the 2008 election results. “They are frustrated at the pace of change.”
Yet Rock the Vote keeps the effort going – even during non-presidential election years – even though it has a skeleton staff and relies heavily on volunteers. The people are devoted to the cause. Ms. Faessen has been with Rock the Vote since 2007 and joined after a stint with an advertising agency.
She worked on women’s global health issues, but was worried that if young people weren’t voting, policies might not change, regardless of how strongly those changes were lobbied. Young people have tremendous voting power, she notes. They are 46 million strong and make up one-fourth of the electorate. In addition to registering voters, Rock the Vote also stresses to young people that they weld considerable power – if they vote, that is.
“I wanted to try and understand where young people are at,” she said. “These are our future leaders and I wanted to help them prepare for that role.”
Thank you Ms. Faessen for rocking this interview. It’s great to know that Rock the Vote, all grown up at 21, is still motivating young people to head to the polls and let their voices be heard.
Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.