Why Obama Rocks the Vote

By Catherine Rampell
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Just before every presidential campaign of the past few decades, the media have heralded The Year That Young People Will Actually Vote. Yet each of those years turned out to be a youth turnoff. The last time more than half of 18-to-24-year-olds voted in a federal election was 1968.

The hubbub is instigated every election cycle by the youth voter mobilization movement, led by Rock the Vote and Declare Yourself. These nonpartisan groups generally try to make voting more palatable in practice and principle: They make voter registration more convenient, and they try to make casting a ballot sound fashionably subversive. Both strategies have failed. This year, though, youth turnout is doing a turnabout, if numbers from the primaries are any indication. And it's because where Rock the Vote has gone wrong, Barack Obama has gone very, very right.

Well-meaning groups for years have held voter registration drives through concerts, schools, Web sites and cellphones. They have pushed motor voter-type laws -- contending that the inconvenience of voter registration discourages otherwise politically gung-ho young'uns. But with the exception of Election Day registration, removing barriers to registration generally results not in an increase in youth turnout but, rather, in a decline in the proportion of those registered who vote.

Many groups concentrate on marketing voting to youths. Through public service announcements, celebrity endorsements and thugged-out streetwear, they present voting with a subtext of rebelliousness. Early 20th-century efforts to motivate voters portrayed casting a ballot as a selfless, communal act, a sort of fealty to the state and to one's countrymen; today's youth-oriented efforts tend to present voting as self-interested and adversarial, a demonstration of rebellion against those running the state and against one's overbearing, parent-like compatriots. The ads frequently remind youngsters that voting is an avenue for "complaining"; a recurring theme is negation and destruction of the oppressive status quo. Some ads reference censorship of young voices, depicting youths with their mouths duct-taped shut. Some memorable ones involve "desecrations" of national symbols (remember Madonna's 1990 sexed-up American flag ad?). More recent commercials feature performers crooning angry lyrics to such iconic American tunes as " My Country, 'Tis of Thee."

Maybe organizers latched on to rebellious imagery because youths often seek to partake in activities restricted to adults, such as smoking and drinking. Rebelliousness is the presumed idiom of youth, and perhaps memories of the 1960s give organizers hope that youthful insubordination can once again be made politically productive. (This may explain why youth-vote ads try to resurrect political villains such as the draft.) But it's hard to imagine a 16-year-old using a fake ID to sneak into a polling booth. And treating voting as a way to rise up against "the system" clearly hasn't worked.

Voting is inherently an act of obedience, an endorsement of the system. One cannot damn The Man by voting for him. The paradox of "voter rebellion," if that's what is being advocated, can be made real only by abstaining. Because of this disconnect between the rhetoric and the act of voting, in the years since Rock the Vote launched in 1990, it and other campaigns haven't had any appreciable effect on youth turnout; in fact, in years when youth turnout rose, non-youth turnout grew by similar amounts.

Until this year. Research from CIRCLE has found that primary turnout among 18-to-29-year-olds has greatly increased this year compared with 2000, with proportional increases generally greater than those for over-30 voters. In Maryland, youth turnout grew to 15 percent from 11 percent, while the over-30 turnout inched up to 29 percent from 28 percent. (Good comparison figures for Virginia and the District are not available.) In many states, such as Missouri and Tennessee, youth turnout tripled or even quadrupled. The difference is not a change in Rock the Vote's tactics; the difference is the junior senator from Illinois.

Here's my pet theory on why Obama energizes young voters. Other efforts to increase youth turnout have emphasized destruction of the status quo, but because they are "nonpartisan" they can't promote any alternative to root for. In contrast, Obama has given youths a team to join. In making his appeal to young people -- and few politicians have so directly and repeatedly addressed youth issues, such as college tuition -- he uses the first-person plural. Just as he preaches racial unity, so too does he seem to advocate age-based reconciliation, rather than a generational culture war young people know they can't win.

Obama emphasizes that political engagement is about being part of something bigger than oneself, not rebelling against that something bigger. He does not try to make voting individualistic, retaliatory or "bad-ass." Voting, like political engagement, is what it is: decent and well-mannered. Obama may portray himself as an outsider, but he wants to change things the old-fashioned way -- through idealism and authenticity, not rock-and-roll and cynicism. In other words, he's made voting hip by being square.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. Her e-mail address is catherine.rampell@gmail.com.

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