Thumbs Up to Voting: Tech Tools Reach Youth

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

Online videos have been effective for Declare Yourself, a five-year-old group that has produced more than 60 often edgy, sometimes provocative videos that inevitably make their way to various socnets. Its latest viral hit -- a five-minute clip seen nearly half a million times on YouTube -- features a star-studded cast sarcastically urging viewers not to vote. "This is one of the biggest financial disasters in American history . . . " says Leonardo DiCaprio, before Ashton Kutcher cuts him off and asks, "Why would you vote?" DY officials say they registered more than 750,000 young voters.

Not to be outdone is Rock the Vote, the headline-grabbing organization that's gotten more buzz than respect since it was created 18 years ago. Heather Smith, the group's director, says RTV registered more than 2.4 million voters, including about 52,000 in Virginia, more than 20 percent of whom came from here in the Hampton Roads area. To turn out the vote, RTV is partly relying on the Facebook virtual phone bank application.

Last year Zach Pilchen, then student body president at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, conducted a nonpartisan registration drive at his school using RTV's online form as a model. At the Student Activities Fair two summers ago, he set up a table of Internet-connected laptops all hooked up to a high-speed printer. Students typed in their information on the laptops, printed their registration forms and signed them. Pilchen says the project registered about 1,400 students through the primaries. Now the goal is to turn them out in November.

"We have people's cellphone numbers," Pilchen says. "There'll be a lot of texting and calling in the next few days."

There is evidence that voters under 30 are more motivated to turn out this year in Virginia. Earlier this month, the State Board of Elections reported a 10 percent increase in its total electorate, with nearly 40 percent of the 436,000 new voters added to the rolls under age 25. About 60 percent of the new registrants are between 18 and 34.

Many of those are in Hampton Roads, a racially diverse region of 1.6 million people with sizable evangelical, military and African American populations -- the battleground region in this battleground state.

Hampton Roads is also home to a cluster of colleges in cities that had some of the biggest registration gains in the state. Hampton, home to Hampton University, a historically black school, saw a 15 percent increase. It was 10 percent for Virginia Beach, home to Regent University, headed by Christian televangelist Pat Robertson. And Norfolk, home to Old Dominion University, had a 14 percent increase.

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Aaron Gulbransen is worried. A native of Brooklyn, the 23-year-old grad student moved to Virginia in January and soon became president of College Republicans at conservative Regent University. Of the 150 students on Gulbransen's mailing list, about 30 are active.

Gulbransen says the campaign could have done a much better job introducing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate to grass-roots supporters, especially online. Let her talk to supporters via YouTube. Lots of working moms text with their children -- where's the McCain-Palin text program?

Trey Walker, the mid-Atlantic regional campaign manager for the McCain campaign says, "We are doing what we need to do with the youth vote in Virginia." He then points to the work of groups such as the College Republicans, which has 190 chapters across the country, 35 of them in Virginia.

Additionally, the Young Republican Federation of Virginia-- a group for GOPers under 40 -- doubled its number of chapters statewide to 16 in the past year. And classes will be canceled on Tuesday at the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg to give its 10,500 students plenty of time to vote.

But if turnout in this year's primary is any indication, young Democrats will outnumber their Republican counterparts. About 135,000 Virginians ages 18 to 29 voted in the Democratic primary, a fourfold increase from 2004, according to CIRCLE. In contrast, about 53,000 voted in the Republican primary, down from the nearly 66,000 who voted in the primary four years ago, even though President Bush faced no competition.

"I think this whole technology thing has just caught the McCain campaign off guard," Gulbransen says.

About 20 minutes northwest from Gulbransen's campus lies Hampton University, one of about 110 historically black colleges and universities. The Obama campaign office is across the street from the campus. On a recent Tuesday night, it was packed with students toggling between homework and making calls to volunteers.

Senior Rashad Drakeford, a 21-year-old from Queens, N.Y., started volunteering through Facebook. At first, Drakeford served as the Virginia director of a Facebook group called Students for Barack Obama. Last fall, he became the coordinator for black colleges.

The weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, days before the South Carolina primary, served as an example of what Drakeford has been able to do. To plan the weekend, Drakeford sent Facebook messages and mass text messages to each member in each college chapter. About 400 students blanketed the state, Drakeford says, hitting churches, salons and barbershops. Obama won the state by almost 29 points, with a 3 to 1 advantage over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton among voters under 30.

On Monday night and Tuesday morning, Drakeford said, young Obama supporters at Hampton will face a two-pronged assault -- on Facebook and on their cellphones. On Election Day, round-the-clock buses will shuttle them to the polls.

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As for Redmond, the senior at Old Dominion, he's gotten one text message from the College Republicans.

He's received several Facebook messages from Obama's Facebook group. Tiffany Gibson, one of the group's officials, has been ubiquitous on campus, organizing canvassing drives and signing up volunteers. "They have more energy, that's for sure," Redmond says of Obama's supporters.

Redmond lives at home and studies full time, driving about 24 miles a day to and from school. Filling up his black Saturn costs about $50 each week. If his mom didn't slip him $20 here and there, things would be really tight. He's on his dad's health insurance. After school, he's not sure where he'll get coverage. He's not sure what he'll do, either. He might just take out a loan, apply to grad school and hope to ride out the bad economy.

"So, yeah, I'm definitely voting," Redmond says. "And I'm sure my friends will text me that day asking me if I did."

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