Thumbs Up to Voting: Tech Tools Reach Youth

At Old Dominion University, Josh Redmond, 22, signed up with student groups for both political parties -- "just so I know what they're both doing." One thing he has decided: He's voting.
At Old Dominion University, Josh Redmond, 22, signed up with student groups for both political parties -- "just so I know what they're both doing." One thing he has decided: He's voting. (By Dominic Bracco Ii -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

NORFOLK -- Everywhere he turns, the digital campaign trails Josh Redmond.

On Facebook, where his profile lists 182 friends, Rock the Vote launched an application allowing users to access a virtual phone bank and make calls using a script -- "I'm calling to remind you that Election Day is coming . . ." His cellphone vibrates with text messages. Again, reminding him to vote. Friends keep forwarding YouTube videos.

When he came back to Old Dominion University this fall, Redmond signed up with both the College Republicans and College Democrats -- "just so I know what they're both doing," he says. "It's a little overwhelming."

The 22-year-old grew up a Republican and in 2004 voted for President Bush -- "a mistake," he now says.

He likes Sen. John McCain's stance on Iraq. But he's graduating in spring with little savings and no job prospects, and economic worries have him leaning toward Sen. Barack Obama. He may change his mind on Tuesday, but this much Redmond knows for sure: He's voting.

Young voters almost always say that. Election Day often has brought a different reality. Between 1972 and 2000, the percentage of the electorate ages 18 to 24 that voted steadily decreased, with a slight exception in 1992, according to the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement ( CIRCLE). The number of eligible voters in that age group rose by 11 percent in 2004, but still fewer than half of them voted, compared with two-thirds of those over 25.

If they turn out this year, young people could prove pivotal to Obama, who has aggressively courted them online, on their cellphones and on their doorsteps all year, and polls show Obama leading McCain by 2 to 1 among that demographic.

To get that core of support to the polls, Obama himself spoke in a conference call Sunday with members of College Democrats of America and the Facebook group Students for Barack Obama. "I know I can count on you," Obama said.

Aside from the presidential campaigns, nonpartisan groups say they are working harder than ever -- online and off -- to make sure young voters go to the polls on Nov. 4.

The big difference in their efforts this election is technology. Four years and a lifetime ago, texting, YouTube and social networking sites (socnets) such as Facebook weren't factors in the presidential race. Now they provide a nonstop and flexible avenue for campaigns and outside groups to broadcast their messages to young voters, whose transient lifestyles can make them harder to reach than others.

"No voting bloc is more impacted by technology than young voters -- they're the ones who spend most of their time online and on their cellphones," says Sujatha Jahagirdar of the pioneering group Student PIRGs, which launched its first youth-vote drive in 1983. Technology "has put into hyper-drive the kind of peer-to-peer, grass-roots organizing we've been doing," adds Jahagirdar.

Her group is marrying its traditional field operations -- sending 85 staffers and 2,000 volunteers to 150 campuses in 20 states -- with new online techniques on MySpace and Facebook. In the past, registering four students per hour was the norm. PIRGs, or public interest research groups, utilized texting heavily; students were asked to text "studentvote" to the number 41411 and immediately received a message that read: "Don't forget to register to vote on" Students are asked to forward that text to everyone in their phone books. The group hit its goal of registering 100,000 voters in a little more than a year

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