why the youth vote is more important than ever

The government is dysfunctional and Millennials just don’t care about the issues. Or so we’re told. Many youth-oriented get-out-the-vote campaigns are trying to change the conversation, one hip PSA at a time.

by i-D Team
05 November 2014, 10:40am

Kris Krug

On October 7th, Rock the Vote released a video that refashions Lil Jon's trap banger "Turn Down for What" into, well, a trap banger that gets you hyped on civic participation. The video opens on a shot of Lil Jon entering a polling place in Hollywood, where he's greeted by a bespectacled acolyte named Lil Ben. Before long, the polling place is transformed into a confetti-strewn dance club and Lil Jon is rapping from behind a spotlighted podium. An all-star array of actors, musicians, and models appear, each answering the question posed by the anthem: turn out for what? Lena Dunham turns out for reproductive rights. Orange Is the New Black star Natasha Lyonne turns out for prison reform. Lil Jon himself turns out for marijuana legalisation. Fred Armisen, nothing if not honest, turns out just to impress his friends. "That's the only reason to ever do anything," he says.

The video quickly went viral, with websites from TheAtlantic.com to Upworthy weighing in. #TURNOUTFORWHAT trended on Twitter and Instagram, where thousands of people posted photos and videos of themselves touting the causes they would turn out for on election day. In less than a month, the video was viewed more than 800,000 times on YouTube.

The video was a return to form for Rock the Vote, founded originally, in 1990, to engage the slackers of Generation X through pop culture referencing PSAs that were just this side of cool. (Perhaps the most iconic of these featured Madonna, wrapped in the American flag, doing a vote-themed version of "Vogue" that includes lines like "Freedom of speech is as good as sex.") The aim was to make voting chic, and Rock the Vote's efforts were successful: in '92, the voting rate for ages 18-24 had jumped nearly 10 percent from 1988, halting two decades of declining youth participation.

But after the 2004 election, Rock the Vote began experiencing financial difficulties. The organisation couldn't raise money as quickly as it was spending it, and by 2006 it was $700,000 in debt and having trouble connecting with a new generation of young people. 

"Rock the Vote was started in an era when not caring was cool," says Audrey Gelman, vice president at the public affairs firm SKDKnickerbocker and a consultant and spokeswoman for Rock the Vote. "This generation is so different than that, so much more predisposed to considering themselves activists."

Gelman is part of an entirely new leadership council for Rock the Vote who are trying to figure out how to reach a generation that is more BuzzFeed than broadsheet. Only 38 percent of those aged 18-24 voted in the 2012 Presidential election, and an April survey by the Harvard University Institute of Politics showed that only 23 percent of Americans under the age of 30 planned to vote in the 2014 midterm elections.

Rock the Vote is not alone: today, there are more youth-oriented get-out-the-vote campaigns than ever. While millennials are often branded as disillusioned brats, faith in America's political systems is down across the board, and while the youth vote is heavily discussed and coveted, it is less often solicited with any fluency. When talking to millennials about the importance of voting, the vast majority of politicians and pundits are about as graceful as a needling father inquiring about your love life.

You don't have to look hard to see the organising power of millennials, though. From Occupy Wall Street to #AlexFromTarget, today's youth have an unprecedented megaphone. But the model for change is often disruption, which necessarily upends existing frameworks to solve problems. Political change, on the other hand, must be forged incrementally. Engaging millennials in movements that might not bear immediate change is the challenge Rock the Vote faces in the 21st century.

"I don't think young people are used to being approached," Gelman says. "But they will recognise a message that resonates with them. It's like a dog whistle only they can hear." As an example, she cites President Obama's appearance on Zach Galifianakis's web series Between Two Ferns to talk about the Affordable Care Act, after which online registration spiked.

Where Rock the Vote led in the effort to making voting hip, other get-out-the-vote organisations followed. In 2003, a group of New York art-world denizens launched Downtown 4 Democracy, which raised $1.5 million for John Kerry. That didn't go so well, but the idea was compelling: an organisation where artists, writers and creatives engaged in high-minded, action-oriented political discourse. In 2012, Gelman relaunched D4D with a gorgeously-designed civics book, The Pocket Guide to Politics, and a party at the Standard Hotel, attended by the likes of Lena Dunham, Mos Def, and Scott Stringer.

Another youth organisation that is making waves is Our Time, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit that was founded by college buddies Matthew Segal and Jarrett Moreno. The group advocates for millennial economic advancement, crafts explanatory videos and memes to disseminate political news, and organises youth-oriented voter registration campaigns. In these efforts, the organisation has formed partnerships with dozens of celebrities any young person would recognise, including Jessica Alba, Steve Carell, Usher, and Sarah Silverman. And like just about everyone, Our Time is sick of politics-as-usual. They call themselves "pro-generational," claiming an advocacy that considers "the majority views of our generation" in order to "represent those positions without shilling for political parties."

On October 27th, an urbane crowd of twenty- and thirty-somethings gathered at Baby's All Right, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for Vote Baby Vote!, an evening of comedy, musical performances, and personal lectures that began with the premiere of a PSA created by the Department of Peace, an organisation that creates campaigns and content championing important issues. In the video, a star-studded cast including Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein, Tavi Gevinson, and Alexa Chung lip-sync to Jett's "Bad Reputation," as scads of statistics about the distressing state of women's rights flash across the screen. The message? You can't afford NOT to care.

"Maybe I'm an eternal optimist, but I don't think it's easier to not to pay attention," the video's co-creator, Sarah Sophie Flicker, told me later. Flicker is a woman of many hats: in addition to her work with the Department of Peace, she is a writer, performer, aerialist, mother, and founder of two activist organisations, a get-out-the-women's-vote campaign called Lady Parts Justice and a political cabaret called The Citizens Band.

Flicker believes that the desire for change and the energy to make it happen are out there, it just needs to be tapped. "The challenge, especially with the midterms, is to encourage women and young people vote in their own self interests," she says. It can be difficult to craft a campaign for the midterms that goes viral, because the elections differ wildly from state to state. And turnout is historically low: as the Washington Post reported this week, at least five of the celebrities who appeared in Rock the Vote's "Turn Out For What" video did not vote in the 2010 midterms.

But that means it is even more important to encourage young voters to the polls during midterms. And oftentimes, as Flicker notes, "the most regressive laws and responses to issues like police violence and womens' reproductive rights happen at the state level."

Of course, the true test of any PSA's effectiveness will come at the polls, but if the online response to videos like #TURNOUTFORWHAT and "Bad Reputation" is any indication, Election Day 2014 may prove to be a moment when millennials, the largest generation in American history, start to make their voices heard.


Text Phillip Pantuso
Photography Kris Krug

Occupy Wall Street
Mos Def
Lil Jon
lena dunham
Rock the Vote
bad reputation
phillip pantuso