The Mission of Rock the Vote: Making It Cool to Cast a Ballot
Stepping inside the headquarters of Rock the Vote is a little like that scene at the end of “The Wizard of Oz” where Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal that the mighty Oz is nothing but a mild-mannered man on a microphone, pulling levers.
Ten years after its inception, Rock the Vote is a household name--"the Kleenex of youth political participation,” said campaign director Alison Byrne Fields. The reality, however, is an overworked staff of five, operating out of a sparsely decorated, decidedly unglamorous office suite in Century City.
Granted, the independent, nonprofit group has thousands of eager volunteers at its fingertips, and a few well-connected friends. But Rock the Vote hasn’t changed the course of American politics. And let’s get one thing straight: It’s not MTV.
“People think we’re MTV,” Fields said. “We get phone calls all the time. They’re like, ‘Could you get Will Smith to come to our event?’ If we could figure out how to get Will Smith to your event, we should be given an award of some sort.
“Then we also get people who write nasty letters about how much they hate MTV. ‘They don’t play enough videos’ . . . that’s the least of my worries.”
Fields’ main worry is how to engage a segment of the population that traditionally stays away from politics--not to mention the ballot booth--in droves. Rock the Vote’s mission is to inspire 18- to 24-year-olds to civic activism in general, and voting in particular, by meeting them on their level.
That means dispatching volunteers to concerts and special events to hand out literature and register voters. It means public service announcements that often feature pop stars from Michael Stipe to Puff Daddy, and print ads that run in magazines like Rolling Stone and Teen People. It means a cutting-edge Web site (https://www.rockthevote.com) that recently introduced a function allowing itinerant youth to apply for absentee ballots.
And with Election 2000 just around the corner, Rock the Vote is revving up its engines (literally) with a 25-city bus tour--part traveling music fest, part voter registration drive--that kicked off Friday night with a free concert at a New York City nightclub.
Also this year, Rock the Vote has partnered with 360hiphop.com, a new venture by hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons, to create Rap the Vote, a niche media campaign that calls on urban youth to “stand up, mobilize, and move as an army to make their voice heard--particularly in opposition to injustices such as police brutality and racial profiling.”
Founded by recording artists in 1990 as a tool to combat government censorship, Rock the Vote came of age in 1992, when Bill Clinton marketed himself as a youth candidate and 43% of young people turned out at the polls (overall turnout: 61%), bucking the trend of declining youth participation.
But that number plummeted to 32% in 1996 (versus 54% overall). In 1998, a midterm election when fewer people were expected to vote, only 15% of youth punched their ballots.
Still, in the last two presidential elections Rock the Vote boasts of having registered more than 850,000 young voters, and in 1996 it became the first-ever Web site to help users secure voter registration forms, even winning an award from the Smithsonian Institution for the effort.
Clearly, the folks at Rock the Vote have their work cut out for them, but unlike dozens of other youth-oriented nonprofits, Rock the Vote has that mystical, elusive property known as name recognition.
“The greatest asset that Rock the Vote has is its name. . . . People know Rock the Vote,” Fields said. When concert-goers notice a Rock the Vote table, she said, “They’re going to come over, and they’re going to register to vote. Maybe more so than if they looked over and saw a sign that said ‘United States Student Assn.,’ even though USSA is a tremendous organization.”
That brand name also helps Rock the Vote secure millions of dollars in free radio and TV air time, plus free ad space in magazines. The group’s long-standing teamwork with MTV doesn’t hurt either. The music network contributes gobs of commercial air time, redirects traffic from its Web site, co-partners on myriad projects and underwrites Rock the Vote’s annual fund-raiser the night before the Grammys.
“Partnering with MTV is critical to their success,” said Diana Owen, a Georgetown political science professor who has conducted research on Rock the Vote’s influence.
“MTV actually does have a lot of credibility with young people. . . . Young people are really tuning into the programs like ‘The Real World.’ The fact that Rock the Vote can work through that venue makes it very appealing.”
Said Stephen Friedman, MTV’s vice president of public affairs: “What we’re able to do is drive our audience to them. We’ve got a huge audience of young people. [For us] to say, ‘This is the place to go and register,’ that’s a huge step.”
One set of public-service spots airing this summer will promote Youth Vote 2000, a coalition of more than 50 youth organizations, including Rock the Vote, that is lobbying for a youth-focused presidential debate in the fall.
Fields suspects that the candidates will sidestep the proposal, mindful of the pointed questions young people are apt to ask. And no, she doesn’t mean boxers versus briefs, the notorious query made of Bill Clinton during a 1994 MTV town hall meeting that was relentlessly rebroadcast--and mistakenly associated with Rock the Vote.
“I guess to a certain extent it is just funny to ask the president of the United States what kind of underwear he wears. But it also has the power to belittle the idea of what young people care about,” Fields said. “There are serious questions that young people want answered.”
Academics and commentators, drawing upon polls and research, have noted that young people, weaned on Iran-Contra and further desensitized by the Lewinsky/impeachment mess, are largely ignoring a system they view as irreparably flawed. But far from apathetic, youth are instead channeling their energies into community service, which touches real human beings and supplies immediate gratification.
“We’re not anti-service at all, but we definitely talk about the fact that you’ll get a greater return if you put the energy you’re putting into the volunteerism into political activism,” Fields said.
“If young people are going to vote, it’s not out of a sense of civic duty. That’s never going to happen. It’s much more complicated than that. They’re not going to vote because they can’t see any connection between what’s going on in politics and their lives.”
The solution, she believes, is to present voting as an act of defiance, rather than an act of capitulation to the status quo. And if anyone can do it, perhaps it’s Rock the Vote, with its uncanny knack for capturing the ever-elusive attention span of youth.
“In terms of younger people’s potential participation in the voting process, it’s got to be one of two things: it’s either got to be ‘cool’ or it’s got to be a habit,” said Adelaide Elm, spokeswoman for Project Vote Smart, a voter education group that provides information on thousands of political candidates (https://www.vote-smart.org). “For Rock the Vote, they’re able to make it appear cool.”
Critics have dismissed Rock the Vote as all flash and no substance, but Owen, the Georgetown professor, takes a different view.
“That’s been one of the big accusations, that it’s pop politics, that young people aren’t really informed; they’re just doing this because Madonna or Ozzy Osbourne told them they should vote,” Owen said. “I don’t think that’s really a fair accusation. . . . Entertainment and serious politics don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Important political messages can be presented in an entertainment type of context, and it doesn’t diminish their worth.”