Monday, February 20, 2006

Despite Hike in Young Voters in 2004, Rock the Vote May Close Doors

Date: Thursday, February 16, 2006
By: Monica Lewis, BlackAmericaWeb.com

A slew of celebrity participation and the intention to increase voter turnout amongst young people might not be enough to keep Rock the Vote rocking on.

The 16-year-old nonprofit organization, founded in Los Angeles, has downsized its staff from 20 to two in recent years and has recently disclosed that it is $500,000 in debt.

A staple on MTV during presidential elections, Rock the Vote used star power to get teenagers and young adults interested in the political process. According to its website, Rock the Vote registered 1.4 million voters during the 2004 presidential race, making stops at college campuses and producing star-studded ad campaigns of today’s hottest music and Hollywood personalities.

The organization’s director, Hans Riemer, told the Associated Press earlier this week that Rock the Vote will solicit donations to stay afloat and will likely reorganize. Calls made by BlackAmericaWeb.com to the group’s Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles offices were not immediately returned by press time. However, the organization did release a letter to the Los Angeles Times stating that it used all of its credit to finance activities surrounding the 2004 presidential campaign, citing an anticipated surge in voter registration amongst young people.

The spending was approved under the administration of Jehmu Greene, who was president of Rock the Vote from 2003 to 2005. Under the leadership of Greene, who is black, Rock the Vote’s membership grew from 1,500 to 1 million. Attempts to reach Greene, who served on the Democratic National Committee’s Commission on Presidential Timing and Scheduling last year, were unsuccessful.

G. Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said while their efforts are admirable, organizations like Rock the Vote, for the most part, will generally find they have huge hurdles to clear.

“One of the problems we have is sort of sustaining young people’s interest in elections,” Madonna told BlackAmericaWeb.com, adding that Rock the Vote’s target demographic -- people ages 18 to 24, generally have the lowest voter turnout.

“I’ve always found that there are some periods when young folks get invigorated or interested in certain issues, but then it’s very hard to sustain that momentum,” Madonna said, citing the upcoming mid-term elections as a perfect example.

“I have not seen anything in the last year or so that really indicates there’s some tremendous interest by young people in these elections,” he said. “When you focus on a presidential election, everyone is pretty excited, but what do you do about a young person in a state where they may have a gubernatorial race, but none for U.S. senator? Or, a person in a southern state where a candidate’s reelection is a lock. It’s hard to motivate people to care about these types of elections.”

Amaya Smith, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, said Rock the Vote has offered candidates a great forum to address young voters new to the election process. She hopes that the organization can survive and continue reaching out to young people, including black voters.

“They were effective and vocal in mobilizing people, including young African-Americans,” Smith told BlackAmericaWeb.com, adding that today’s younger voters may not be as indifferent to the election process as some might believe. With the number of controversies surrounding the Bush administration, including the war in Iraq and drastic cuts in student aid, young black voters have a vested interest in who is elected in all levels of government.

“Young people are talking and blogging about the current president and his policies. And a lot of them are discontent about the war, which they feel directly affects them,” Smith said. “When you’re in the midst of a war and many of the casualties are young people, this will motivate a lot of people.

“The message we’re trying to send,” Smith continued, “is that these mid-terms elections help to determine the state of the presidential elections. Congress and House seats are very important because they often are the ones who make key decisions about things like going to war or student aid.”

Regardless of what the outcome of Rock the Vote's woes are, Madonna believes it will be hard for such groups to match or better the voter turnout of 2004, in which 70 percent of registered voters made it to the polls.

“You’d have to go back to 1960 to find anything close to that. The excitement and zeal of young voters seems to dissipate over time,” Madonna said. “With or without Rock the Vote, it will be difficult to keep it up.”

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