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New voters: shadow falls between registration and voting.

No one has to nudge Melanie Campbell to get out and vote. Her political-participation wakeup call came when she was 18, a young African-American woman newly enrolled at Clark College in Atlanta. The year was 1979 and despite her father's death, she remained optimistic that federal education grants would see her through four years of college.

But the election of Ronald Reagan the year after changed call that. Grant money quickly dried up as the new administration pursued its program of lower taxes and cuts in federal spending. The young business major had to pay her tuition and stay afloat with a combination of federal work-study money, student loans and jobs at Burger King and a local department store.

"I won't ever forget that experience," said Campbell, now executive director of the Washington-based National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. "For the first time, I understood how who's in the White House had a direct effect on me."

Campbell devotes her time and energy to delivering the "voting-matters" lesson to African Americans who are either not registered to vote or do not vote despite being registered. The coalition's Black Youth Vote project is training young organizers to work in 10 states this year to boost African-American turnout, especially among those between 18 and 29.

Surveys by David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, show stark divergence among African-Americans of all age groups when it comes to attitudes no voting. In surveys over the past five years, 22.2 percent of those between 18 and 35 agreed that "neither candidate (in a given election) is worth supporting." Only 7.8 percent of those over 50 agreed. Results were similar for other such questions: "Politicians don't keep campaign promises." and "Your vote doesn't make a difference to the outcome."

Unlike their elders, young African-Americans do not identity with the Democratic Party. And, "they don't view the GOP as an alternative," Bositis said. "It means they are essentially partyless, which is something of a recipe for not voting."

New voters these days are not only minorities--they are young, or recently naturalized immigrants, or citizens of all descriptions who don't vote for one reason or another. To Campbell and dozens of activists like her, the question of whom you vote for is less important than whether you go to the polls in the first place.

It's a Herculean task. Groups such as Campbell's coalition and the National Council of La Raza are fighting more than 30 years of gradual decline in voter participation in national elections. In 1960, 62.8 percent of the electorate voted, according to Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. By 1980, that figure had fallen to 52.6 percent.

There was a voting uptick in 1992 with the election of President Clinton--55.2 percent of the electorate cast ballots. But that momentum dissipated in 1996 when the figure dropped to 48 percent. Still, while voter participation overall is in decline, black voting is on the rise, even if slightly. In 1996, 11.3 million African-Americans voted--63.5 percent of those eligible. In 2000, 12.9 million voted--63.6 percent of those eligible.

Notwithstanding the hoopla of razor-thin poll margins and get-out-the-vote efforts of both major parties, the 2000 election barely lifted overall turnout back over the 50 percent mark. And the youth vote actually declined. A University of Maryland survey released last June showed that at most, 42 percent of young people 18 to 24 voted in 2000--13 percent less than in 1972, representing a steady decline over the last 40 years. And, turnout for this age group is even more dismal in mid-term elections. In 1998 less than 20 percent of registered 18-24 year-olds cast a ballot.

For advocacy groups and political parties alike, the overriding question is: Who are the elusive "new voters?" How do you reach them? What combination of admonition and enticement will get these folks not only to register but actually turn out on Election Day?

Latinos represent a significant piece of this puzzle. Their numbers already weigh heavily on the politics of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, New York, New Jersey and Florida. In addition, Latinos are making their presence felt in unlikely places, including North Carolina, Arkansas and Kansas. At 32 million and rising, Latinos are destined to become the nation's leading minority by the end of 2004, according to census estimates. In the 1996 election, Latinos made up 5 percent of the electorate, casting 4.9 million ballots. In 2000, they were 7 percent, with 5.9 million votes.

Although composites of any amorphous group like "new voters" are by definition fraught with peril, the categories most often mentioned are minorities and the young--and frequently a combination of the two. The median ages of both the black and Hispanic U.S. populations are substantially younger than their Anglo counterpart: 38 for whites, 29 for blacks and 25 for Latinos, according to Bositis.

Those in the vanguard of that growth curve are newly minted citizens. In 1999, the last year for which the Immigration & Naturalization Service maintains nationality statistics, a total of 193,709 persons of Mexican origin were naturalized. That's more than three times the size of the next largest group--new citizens of Vietnamese origin. And its more than 10 times the 17,564 Mexican who were naturalized in 1990.

Both major parties have done the math and are planning accordingly. Democrats and Republicans are stepping up voter registration efforts at swearing-in ceremonies around the country. With the 2000 Census showing the foreign-born population in the U.S. topping 28 million, engaging these voters in politics is crucial for survival.

Amid all the media hoopla over the rise of Hispanic voting power, groups working to build the Latino vote worry that registration alone is not enough. "It was easy at first to get all the low-hanging fruit," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP). "We got so many (Latinos) into the electorate by 2000 that we didn't realize 'jeez, they need more than just registration to turn out"' and vote.

A key factor: Although the numbers of registered Hispanics in the 1970s and 1980s were a fraction of what they are today, turnout rates were significantly higher. Why? "Before, we struggled against the 'Latino' problem, the perception that the system is biased against Latinos so why bother to vote," Gonzalez said. Having fought and won that battle early in the 1990s, Latino organizers now encounter what Gonzalez describes as the "American" problem. Apathy among Latinos is little different from the population at large. "It's the essential problem of American democracy: (The perception that) special interests control the two-party system, which doesn't speak to the interests of those below middle class," he said.

Southwest Voter, which dispatches organizers to work with church and civic groups to register Latino voters, is focusing its energy on making sure newly registered voters actually go to the polls. Such "low-propensity" voters, as Gonzalez calls them, typically have been registered for two years or less and may not have voted ever. This year SVREP is mobilizing 400,000 Latino voters in 15 states in the South, the Southwest and the West, identifying non-participants for registration and turnout activities. The hope is to work with these people through three election cycles, eventually turning them into habitual voters.

In Los Angeles over the past three election cycles, SVREP has worked to register and "adopt" 30,000 voters. They've reached deeply into council-manic districts with heavy Latino populations, seeking out new, mostly young voters who are not "vested in the system," as Gonzalez puts it. "They're not middle-class homeowners with government jobs or their own businesses, or 40-year-olds with kids in school." Because they have no track record as voters, the major political parties don't know they exist.

SVREP has put these hard-to-get newly registered voters into phone banks. Volunteers stay in touch and arrange face-to-face visits. They distribute a bumper sticker; "Su Voto Es Su Voz." (Your Vote is Your Voice.) Volunteers get to know these people, talking to them at night while they're eating dinner or early in the morning before they leave for work. They ID who says they will vote and then check the Board of Elections computer tapes to see who actually cast ballots. "We do what political parties used to do two generations ago," Gonzalez said.

The result? In the mayoral runoff in June 2001, 61 percent of those SVREP tracked went to the polls. By contrast, 37 percent of voters citywide and 38 percent of all registered Latinos cast ballots. In the March primary this year, with little to attract Hispanic voters to the polls, 47 percent of the SVREP group turned out compared to 31 percent citywide. "This tells me our method works," Gonzalez said.

This year SVREP is planning a huge "Tardeada"--an afternoon festival--in a park in early October to spark enthusiasm through musical acts, comedians, speeches and lots of delicious food. The group is rolling out similar efforts in Miami, San Antonio, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas.

Voting advocacy groups and the two major parties are hoping the closeness of the 2000 election and reinvigorated post-9-11 patriotism put some vertical lift under those nettlesome turnout percentages come November and in 2004.

To Clarissa Martinez, director of state and local public policy for the National Council of La Raza, the margin of the 2000 presidential race is the perfect answer to the age-old excuse of the non-voter: My vote doesn't matter; why bother to vote. "We have a clear example here of how a handful of votes really do matter," she said. "We want to make sure that message is heard loud and clear in the Latino community."

Campbell's coalition is trying to translate the tragedy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks into an affirmative plug for voting. "Stand for Freedom--Vote!" is a slogan that adorns the group's appeals to prospective African-American voters.

Ethnic groups and age cohorts are not the only targets of groups and parties looking for new voters. Democrats, for instance, hope to register 1 million new voters this year with women comprising approximately 50 percent. In recent election cycles Democrats have done well among 18- to 35-year-old college-educated women who favor abortion rights. However, the party has not enjoyed the same support among non-college-educated women in the same age bracket. Democrats are planning to take their message of "Every Vote Counts" to this group, emphasizing the idea that women must vote to ensure their children's healthcare and education needs are met.

Democrats hope to reach this group in their environment--beauty parlors, laundromats, community colleges and trade schools. The first step will be registration through a "customer-friendly" approach. For example, "know-your-rights posters" with a pocket containing voter registration forms will be placed where these women might congregate. In addition, students affiliated with their local College Democrats chapter will travel to these locations with Internet-ready laptops and printers to register new voters on the spot. As Election Day nears, Democrats will depend on grassroots efforts to get these women out to vote or make sure they participate in early or absentee voting.

According to national Republicans, the party does not have a specific registration goal or particular target group for this year. However the close margin of the 2000 election has motivated the GOP to refine its strategy for attracting new voters. Like the Democrats, the Republicans understand a broad message won't resonate with everyone, and will tailor their message and tactics to the audience.

GOP activists, for example, will recruit voters at new citizen swearing-in ceremonies around the country handing out tailored issue information cards. Hispanic voters will be given a card showing President Bush with President Vicente Fox to show the high priority Republicans place on the U. S.-Mexico relationship. In May, the Republican National Committee announced production of a monthly Spanish-language television program, designed to promote party news and opinions, in select heavily Hispanic markets.

Republicans also concede they need to improve contact with voters in the last crunch days leading up to the election. The party will count on state parties and the network of grassroots activists pulled together by a new "Team Leader" program to mobilize voters and get them out.

The Green Party's insurgency almost by definition concentrates on youthful voters, as well as those turned off by the two major parties. Since August 2001, Green Party 2000 presidential candidate Ralph Nader has led the party's "People Have the Power Tour" through rallies in a dozen or more cities, from Boston to Austin to San Francisco. Their message: "Progressive people must work together." Their goal: "Freeing American politics from the grip of corporate interests."

These are concepts that naturally appeal to key groups of new voters, particularly the young and the disaffected. "A lot of people think the Green Party tends to target liberal progressive Democrats," said spokesman Scott McClarty. "In fact, I think we tend to target progressive voters who are not interested in the Democratic Party, and independent voters who feel alienated from the system."

All parties view the youth vote as up for grabs. This cycle, Republicans and Democrats plan to register new voters through their respective young Republicans and Democrats chapters at colleges across the country. Not only do these groups register new students at activities fairs and lines to sign-up for classes and dorms, they also create a grassroots volunteer base that can be used to get out the vote in November.

Nonpartisan groups also are investing heavily in street-level persuasion. At 17, Jamie Rutenberg of Washington D.C. is too young to vote herself. But she signed on as a Community Street Team leader for Rock the Vote, an organization dedicated to youth civic participation. Rutenberg, a high school junior is in charge of a group of local teens working to get their peers involved in social issues. "Everyone always complains," she said. "I don't want to be part of the complaints, I want to be part of the solution.

Rock the Vote started in 1990 and gained notoriety through its partnership with MTV's "Choose or Lose" vote campaign. According to Executive Director Jehmu Greene, three million new voters have been registered through the organization in the last 12 years. She hopes to add an additional 500,000 18- to 24-year-olds this year with the help of Street Team leaders like Rutenberg.

The Street Team began last year as a test project and has now expanded to 38 cities across the United States. Greene says the goal of these teams is to take what Rock the Vote is putting out on television, in print, and on the radio and bring it to the young people at malls, festivals and concerts. This summer, 7Up, Rock the Vote, the League of Women Voters' DemocracyNet and the GRAMMYs have teamed up to register and educate young voters through a national tour called "Step Up" A large bus equipped with a simulated concert stage and a "Confessional Booth" allowing teens to "sound off" on political issues rolled through 30 cities from Los Angeles to Boston.

"We want everything from the rave type of young person, to the hip-hop type of young person, to the country-western type person," she says. Greene feels one of the major problems with some voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts is that they are focused around college campuses or the "student council types" that have already decided to participate. "We want to reach the people who haven't been touched, or have opted out of participating in politics," she says.

Greene hopes Rock the Vote's partnership with high profile summer concert tours like the much-anticipated Ozz Fest and Area 2 festival with headliner Moby will help to reach her goal. If parents have never heard of these concerts and performers, that's the point. "We're really trying to have a strong presence wherever young people are to show them that political participation is cool," says Greene.

Since no one particular message seems to attract the youth vote, organizers keep working on innovative ways to show young adults they need to register and show up at the polls.

World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, formerly WWF) has thrown itself into the action sponsoring the nationwide "Smackdown Your Vote!" voter registration and turnout program. The effort began in 2000 when "The Rock," the WWF wrestler turned Hollywood actor (whose actual name is Dwayne Johnson), kicked off the campaign at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. WWF teamed up with Rock the Vote, the Youth Vote Coalition and Project VoteSmart to register approximately 150,000 new voters.

There is no registration goal for this election cycle, but the program has expanded well beyond simply setting up tables at WWE events. According to Gary Davis, vice president of corporate communications at World Wrestling Entertainment, Smackdown! coordinated with organizations including the National Association of Secretaries of State to reach Out to teenagers during May's high school voter registration month.

A dozen states encouraged their public schools to participate in "Smackdown Your Vote Day!" Art work bearing the burly image of Honorary Smackdown! Chairman Kurt Angle was distributed and for the first time, students were offered the chance at a $2,000 college scholarship if they could create an organized and innovative voter registration campaign in their school.

For those who argue WWE portrays a negative and violent image, Davis says Smackdown! proves the fictitious world of wrestling can have a real world impact. "We're very much a patriotic organization trying to do good for the country and for its fans," Davis said. "When our talent outside the ring activities, everyone is favorably impressed. Our talent can effectively communicate with people on a range of issues--registering to vote, vote, stay in school or read a book."

No one can deny the high visibility these dominating wrestlers bring to the cause. Approximately 24 million viewers tune in each week and 32 percent are between the ages of 18-34.

While Davis says WWE's appeal can get young voters to sign-up to vote, he's hoping a strong get-out-the-vote effort using notable WWE talent beginning in early October will actually send this group to the polls.

As with other groups of new voters, the greatest challenge presented by young people is not registration. It's getting them to actually go out and vote. Rock the Vote will invest heavily in getting those they've registered to vote in November. "We're not just going to stop with voter registration and think that those people will be driven to the polls," said Greene. Every person registered through Rock the Vote will receive a flyer and an automated celebrity phone call reminding them about Election Day and the importance of casting a ballot. "They're going to be touched a lot of times once they make that decision to register," Greene said. This tactic might seem mundane, but there is some proof that traditional GOTV efforts can increase youth voter turnout.

Prior to the 2000 and 2001 elections, two Yale University professors studied the impact of face-to-face canvassing on young voters in select cities. Both studies showed successful contact with these voters before election day drove turnout up by more than 8 percentage points. Phone canvassing also increased turnout by an average of 5 percentage points.

Partisan or nonpartisan, all the bells and whistles in the world cannot take the place of the vote organizer's essential tactic: One-on-one persuasion. "A lot of people like to think there are shortcuts, but there aren't," Gonzalez said. "These are people you get with shoe leather and sweat."







Dan Freedman is a correspondent in the Washington Bureau of Hearst Newspapers. Sasha Johnson is a producer for CNN's "Inside Politics."
COPYRIGHT 2002 League of Women Voters
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Johnson, Sasha
Publication:National Voter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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