Celebrities advocate voting

The first time I heard about the latest project of Smackdown Your Vote! was about a year ago, at the monthly gathering of a coalition of youth-vote activists in Washington. An official of World Wrestling Entertainment announced to the group his company’s new collaboration with hip-hop artists to mobilize “Two Million More in 2004!”

Wrestlers and rappers joining to promote something as conventional and old-fashioned as voting – was this for real?

In the year since, popular culture has embraced the imperative of youth voting with a passion and a panache that have surprised even some jaded students of electoral politics. From the Christian right to the irreverent left, nonprofit organizations and commercial enterprises have decided it is way cool to help young people fill out voter registration cards and get to the polls on Election Day.

The MTV Video Music Awards last month contained a steady drumbeat of exhortations, complete with personal messages from the Bush and Kerry daughters, trolling for votes for their fathers. P. Diddy Combs sports a “Vote or Die!” T-shirt on his Citizen Change Web site. Rock the Vote is partnering with the 7-Eleven chain for a “big gulp” of democracy through in-store registration.

The sheer closeness of this race, the stark contrast between the presidential candidates, and the massive hunt for new and undecided voters have focused attention on 18- to 24-year-olds as never before.

So here’s the problem. The decline in youth voting – a stubborn, 30-year trend unlike any in American electoral history – will not be arrested by yet another slick marketing campaign. Welcome though these attempts at consciousness-raising are, if voting turns into another commodity to be hawked and sold, then this unique and essential tool of citizenship may be discarded as quickly as last year’s sneakers.

Young people aren’t staying home on Election Day in record numbers simply because they are lazy or apathetic, or because the hottest celebrity hasn’t asked them to vote. Powerful social and political trends have conspired to keep them from the polls, to make other forms of civic engagement more gratifying and rewarding, and to make voting feel like a meaningless exercise in a distant and often dirty political system they don’t understand or much like.

Only if we welcome them into the political process, and make it clear they have a genuine role in it, will the trend lines reverse for good. Only if we address the structural reasons that young people don’t vote can we begin to count on them to infuse our democracy with the ideas and idealism for which young Americans have always been prized.

Voting in the United States in 2004 is still subject to a dizzying hodgepodge of local and state regulation that can be difficult to navigate, especially for the first time. If this nation really wanted to eliminate the barriers that have kept eligible citizens, particularly young ones, from the polls, we would build on the best practices of the states.

For instance, a handful of states have laws allowing voters to register on Election Day – which is known to increase voter turnout in general and especially among the young. Whether going off to college, moving for a job, or in the military, young people change residences far more than older Americans. But unless you live in Minnesota, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin or Wyoming, this sensible same-day option is not allowed.

There are other obstacles: Seven states require a first-time voter to cast a ballot in person, making it impossible for an out-of-state college freshman to vote absentee. Many states have restrictive voting hours that especially affect working people and the young, thus depressing turnout. In 2000, turnout in states with early closing times was 3 percent lower than in states where polls stayed open until 8 p.m. or later.

Why, in a world that operates 24/7, do we permit polling places to close earlier than some neighborhood banks?

The chance to reach out and touch the political process is essential nowadays, since too much of politics has turned into a spectator sport, a trend most damaging to the young. Politics can become personal again, and it’s proved to work its magic.

In a landmark 2001 study, Donald P. Green, Alan S. Gerber and David W. Nickerson, all of Yale University, tested voters in six communities nationwide. Here’s what they found: A face-to-face contact with a young voter just before Election Day increased the probability of turnout by 8 to 12 percent.

It’s more effective than television ads, direct mail, and those annoying robotic calls that flood telephone answering machines every fall. Which is why we see the personal touch extended in this campaign, through foundation-funded projects, Rock the Vote’s “street campaigns,” and mobilization efforts on college campuses. Truth is, we know that face-to-face canvassing, especially done by peers, works.

I’m not one for predictions, but I’ll venture this: On Nov. 3, no matter who wins the big prize, we will wake up to find dozens of groups claiming credit for an increase in youth voting. Popular culture’s contribution to this upsurge in participation cannot be discounted.

But if we want to make it stick, if we want to ensure that young people come of age in a civic culture that values voting as a duty and a privilege, then we can’t rely on wrestlers and rappers alone. There are underlying causes to address, and, for all who care about the future of our democratic republic, no time to waste in addressing them.