Maurice Williams, a young African-American man, races down a city street as a voice from behind shouts, “There he goes!” Feet pound the pavement as a group of five other young men and women chase after him. Williams jumps a fence, but the others, some dressed in suits and carrying a camera and large microphone, catch up.
“What?” asks Williams, arms stretched out in surrender. For a split-second, silence hangs. Then a young woman tentatively ventures, “Excuse me sir, did you just? Did you just vote?”
“Yeah,” says Williams.
“We don’t vote,” asserts another African-American teen from behind his camera. Then, sounding less confident, “Do we?”
“I do man, it’s my right,” shrugs Williams.
The young reporters look incredulous. “I don’t believe this,” says Williams, disgusted and walking away.
The words “If You Can, You Should,” appear onscreen.
For another moment, all is quiet. Then a young woman shouts, “Look! A Latino voter!” The group takes off running.
The thirty-second video, “Chase the Vote,” was conceived, written, acted, shot, and produced entirely by teenagers from the Oakland-based Youth Sounds, a nonprofit that teaches young people how to tell stories through film. The public service announcement was one small but significant part of last year’s enormous and well-publicized effort to get teens to the polls.
By November 2, nearly every newspaper in the country had run a story about that effort, usually mentioning MTV’s Rock the Vote and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’s quest to make voting “sexy.” But few explored how vital it was to the movement’s success that teens, like the ones who produced “Chase the Vote,” got involved in the effort, and that many of the organizations that make media by and for youth, like Youth Sounds, did just that.
To many of us who work at the growing number of nonprofits that produce teen-created publications, films, web content, or radio programming, it’s intuitive that teens respond better to other teens’ pleadings that they go to the polls than to an adult’s or even a celebrity’s urgings. After all, teens are at a stage when they’re forging identities separate from adults. They want to be engaged in the world, but they don’t want to get involved because their civics teacher tells them to. That’s why many of us in youth media have heard from teachers, social workers, and parents about the kids who almost never read anything but are riveted by the story written by their peers.
Studies on voting efforts support the notion that when it comes to mobilizing teens, peer pressure works best. A substantial body of research indicates that old-fashioned (and relatively inexpensive) peer-to-peer contact is the most effective way to convince young people to vote. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that even over the telephone, young people responded far more favorably to peer canvassers than to adults.
Many young people affirm that’s a no-brainer. “People aren’t necessarily going to vote just because P. Diddy or Andre 3000 are saying it’s cool,” wrote Spellman College student Moya Bailey in Pop + Politics, a youth-produced publication that connects politics to media and pop culture for its college-age audience. “At the MTV Video Music Awards, for example, it was clear the audience was tired of adults constantly reminding them to vote.”
Wiretap, written by and for progressively minded teens, has always kept one foot firmly anchored in the activist community. In the fall of 2003, when groups like the League of Pissed off Voters and PunkVote began mobilizing, Greenaway decided to ask Wiretap writers—many whom were getting involved in the youth voting movement themselves—to help mobilize Wiretap’s readers to vote.
The challenge of that, remembers Greenaway, was not one of overcoming the teen apathy that many newspapers were blaming for the steady decline of the youth vote over the last 30 years. (Though the youth vote rose in 1992, the year Bill Clinton informed the public that he, like many young people, preferred boxers to briefs.)
In fact, research indicates that young people today volunteer in record numbers
and are often more concerned about the state of the world than their elders.
The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait found
that in 2002 about 40 percent of 15 to 25 year olds said they had volunteered
in the last year compared with the significantly lower national volunteering
rate of 31.7 percent. Monitoring the Future found that volunteer rates among
high school seniors rose nearly ten percent from 1976 to 2001, and The Higher
Education Research Institute’s annual survey of first-year college students found
a rising volunteer rate of nearly twenty percent from 1990 to 2003. For many
of these teens, explained youth voting expert Jane Eisner in the Washington
Post, “service has become the new politics.”
But mobilized youth often don’t vote. Greenaway knew that Wiretap needed to convince the teens already involved in their communities to get involved in electoral politics. That meant “enlightening them as to how voting is something that people have fought for years to make possible…that ideally it is a way to have a voice and be part of this big picture of being involved in the world around you.”
So Wiretap published the book Storming the Polls: How to Vote Your Views and Change the Rules, which featured youth-written stories about topics ranging from young people in office to the article “Not Playin’: A Call to Black Youth.” They sent three thousand copies of the book to teens, organizers, voting advocates, and teachers.
While Wiretap was out in front in covering the elections, Youth
Noise, an interactive website with a readership considerably younger
and more politically diverse than Wiretap, did not begin covering elections
until a couple of months before voting day, when their summer interns became
interested in the candidates and began posting commentary about them for
members to discuss. Only about a third of Youth Noise members can vote, and
they identify with the religious right as well as the far left. Once the
election articles posted, Youth Noise discussion boards about the elections
and its issues exploded. Executive director Ginger Thompson was impressed
by how forcefully a peer’s passion for a topic—the elections, in this case—could
mobilize the site’s some 400,00500,000 visitors each month.
Youth Sounds, which produced the “Chase the Vote” public service announcement, was also slow to enter the political fray. Executive director Ken Ikeda considers the organization to be about teaching storytelling, and its films are often cinematic. Youth Sounds’ films, which have appeared in several film festivals, often involve comparatively whimsical situations, like an uptight high school teacher who breaks out dancing, or a group of tough-looking kids stumbling upon a magic box in an abandoned building that transforms them all into clowns.
Ikeda did not intend for the organization to make a public service announcement urging minority teens to vote. That is, not until the politically minded 19-year-old Maurice Williams convinced the other teens in the program’s summer workshop that they should get involved. “Chase the Vote”—Williams’s brainchild—took only two weeks to produce and won second place in MTV’s “Choose or Lose” contest for public service announcements urging young people to vote. The irony, says Ikeda, is that prior to the video MTV did not seem interested in just how powerful youth made media can be: MTV did not accept contest entries from youth under 18. Luckily, Williams, the oldest in the group, was exactly 18.
Despite their work, just after the elections many youth media professionals were surprised and disappointed to read that “get out the vote” (GOTV) efforts had apparently failed to motivate young people. Newspapers across the country reported that the nation’s young people had not responded to efforts to get teens voting. The 2004 youth vote as a percentage of the electorate was the same as that in 2000.
Editorials across the country admonished teens for their apathy. Even the
late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thomson quipped, “Yeah, we rocked the vote
all right. Those little bastards betrayed us again.”
This simply was not true.
Greenaway of Wiretap was one of the first journalists to correct this misconception. In an article she wrote for Alternet.org, which hosts Wiretap, she explained that the confusion about whether or not more youth voted was caused by percentages.
The 2004 youth vote as a percentage of the electorate was the same as that in 2000, simply because more people in every demographic voted in 2004. But the actual number of youth who voted rose significantly. Almost 5 million more young people voted in 2004 than in 2000, and the percentage of young people ages 1829 who voted in the last election increased by 9.3 percent. MTV’s Rock the Vote had hoped to find 20 million young people at the polls November 2—in fact, 21 million turned out.
Though no one knows precisely what effect the “get out the vote” efforts had in the surge of youth who voted last November, statistics do suggest that its impact was significant. After all, in the swing states most heavily targeted by GOTV efforts, the youth vote was especially high, sometimes as much as 12 percent higher than in other states. Youth media, says Kathryn Montgomery, a professor in the School of Communication at the American University, definitely contributed to it. "They should take some of the credit.”
Experts like Montgomery now wonder what the lasting effects of last year’s efforts to mobilize teens to the polls will be. Did the 2004 election mark a reversal in the trend in voting apathy amongst teens, or was it a momentary response to an election that many youth believed was the most important one of their lives?
It remains to be seen whether the teens mobilized to civic engagement during the last election stay involved, but experts say that the ages between 15 and 22 make up the critical time when young people are developing the “civic identities” they will take with them into adult life. If voting becomes part of their identity as young adults, chances are they’ll maintain that.
For those of us who produce media for young people, said Ian Rowe of MTV’s Rock the Vote at an American University panel discussion, our “job is to continue to tell stories that are relevant to the lives of [our] audience,” which will help channel teens’ newfound energy and enthusiasm for electoral politics into activities that keep them involved during off-election years.
Montgomery agrees, adding that youth media is particularly well-positioned to do that. “You have to really engage the electorate to make rational decisions, to be thoughtful,” she explained. “Voting is just part of it. Youth media has a very important role to play there. It’s not that they just engage in efforts to get young people to vote. They’re engaging them in the issues. They’re finding ways to get hooks that will resonate with teenagers. That’s a long-term process.”
How media made by and for teens helped increase the youth vote by millions during the last election.