Chasing the Youth Vote

Madonna, scantily-wrapped in an American flag, flanked by two equally-unclothed back-up dancers, snaps her fingers and sings, “Get up and Vote!” This is how it all began. Gen Xers and older Millennials might remember this cheeky 1990 video as Rock the Vote’s inaugural PSA. As the first attempt at combining pop culture and politics, Rock the Vote was the only organization at the time encouraging civic responsibility in youth. Since then, we have seen many of these organizations focus solely on pushing the youth vote (Gen Edgers and Millennials age 18–24), with varied success.

The youth vote didn’t stand out as a significant target until 1972 when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. George W. Bush’s election in 2004 was deemed the banner year for young voters, yet the election still only brought in 47 percent of this group. With the election coming up, the youth vote is more important than ever. 2016 will be the first election where the number of eligible Millennial voters will nearly match that of Baby Boomers, with Millennials representing 30.5% and Boomers representing 30.7%. And, by 2020, Millennials are forecasted to represent 34% of the vote while Boomers shrink to 28%. Now, more than ever, it is essential to encourage Millennials to be civic-minded. How have we encouraged the youth to vote in years past, and has it worked?

Rock the Vote
With 25 years under its belt and even more celebrity endorsements to its name, Rock the Vote has probably been the most significant voice in the youth vote movement. Rock the Vote concerts, advertisements, and programs were a staple in schools and on every Xer’s favorite channel, MTV. You would be hard-pressed to find an Xer who doesn’t remember 90s musicians like Michael Stipe, Dee Lite, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Megadeth using their celebrity status to convince Xers that their vote mattered. For Millennials, 2014’s #turnoutforwhat campaign featured some of this generation's icons—Lena Dunham, Lil Jon, and Fred Armisen—sharing which causes they vote for.

While Rock the Vote has created many innovative approaches for attracting the youth vote (for example, the first telephone voter registration system and the first online-based voter registration program), they have yet to prove that they have influenced youth to actually fill out a ballot. That being said, initiatives like their Millennial Ambassador program and online voter registration programs successfully registered 2.6 million young voters in 2008—the most in US history.

Citizen Change/ Hip Hop Caucus
Citizen Change, the often mocked and now defunct brainchild of P. Diddy (or Puff Daddy, Diddy, Sean… who knows), is known for its in-your-face attempt at inspiring youth and minority votes. For its most notable campaign, 2004’s Vote or Die!, Citizen Change had similar celebrity backing as its Rock the Vote counterpart. Calling his celebrity supporters the “Coalition of the Willing,” Diddy put together a powerhouse of celebrities, canvassing 35 major markets with the ‘Vote or Die’ message. P.Diddy has since made controversial comments about the power of the vote and made the Citizen Change movement inactive.

With Citizen Change on hiatus, Reverend Lennox Yearwood, JR., co-creator of Diddy’s organization, decided to carry on the youth torch with Hip Hop Caucus. Yearwood uses hip-hop culture and celebrities to inspire Millennial minorities toward political activism. Its current “Respect My Vote” campaign, a partnership with Rock the Vote, aims to register minority voters. In 2008, they successfully registered 49,000 hard-to-reach voters, from ex-offenders to those in the urban desert.

Our Time
Not to be confused with the dating site of the same name, Our Time is a non-partisan organization launched in 2011. Through partnerships with—you guessed it— A-list celebrities like Jessica Alba and Steve Carrell, YouTube celebrities, and popular Millennial media channels like Funny or Die and Tumblr, Our Time aims to inspire Millennials to register to vote. (I think it’s safe to say these organizations believe celebrity endorsements attract Millennials.) Sparked by the high unemployment rate of their peers in 2011, Our Time was founded by Millennials and has worked with Millennial entrepreneurs to inspire change. Instead of aligning with a party, Our Time considers itself “pro-generational” and acts as a loudspeaker for the majority views shared by the generation. A relatively new organization, the 2016 election will be the litmus test for Our Time’s effectiveness.

For Traditionalists, voting was a responsibility that represented a personal contribution to and for the greater good. Boomers saw voting as an opportunity to create peaceful change and carry out civil discourse. You can imagine the concern and disbelief when Gen Xers and Millennials didn’t show up at the polls in the same numbers as Traditionalists and Boomers did in their youth. Concern for the future of democracy has pushed many Boomer icons, such as Bill Clinton and Russell Simmons, to support youth voter initiatives. With Gen Edgers (more commonly referred to as Gen Z) coming of age and having the right to vote in their first national election, we will see if any of these initiatives resonate with the newest generation.