Rock the Vote: Harnessing the Power of Young Voters

Two people dance in front of a voting booth. (Courtesy Rock the Vote)
E.J. Johnson (left) and Ireland Baldwin dance their way to a voting booth in a Rock the Vote video. (Courtesy photo)

When young people vote, they can decide elections. It happened in Nigeria and Burkina Faso in 2015. It happened in the U.S. in 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected president.

If you want to learn how to get young people involved in elections, you probably should check out Rock the Vote. The organization has one goal: getting the youngest eligible voters in the U.S. to the polls. For 25 years, the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has inspired young voters using pop culture, music, art and technology.

The backbone of Rock the Vote has been their emphasis on removing practical obstacles to voting — cutting through red tape to make it clear where young people need to go to register and when they need to do it.

“Our generation is the most connected and diverse generation ever,” said Rock the Vote’s president, Ashley Spillane. “We live online and on social media.” That’s why Rock the Vote delivers its messages online.

Two people with “Rock the Vote” signs make “V for vote” signs with their fingers.
Rock the Vote president Ashley Spillane (right) with rapper Darryl McDaniels at a Rock the Vote event. (Courtesy photo)

It hasn’t always been this way. When Rock the Vote started in 1990, it launched a television commercial featuring pop singer Madonna encouraging voting. More typical of today’s efforts are the YouTube video in which rapper Lil Jon turns his hit “Turn Down for What” into “Turnout for What” or the video made by fashion model Kendall Jenner (with her mobile-phone camera) that nudges people to participate in National Voter Registration Day.

No matter who delivers the message, “the focus has to be on getting [youth] to channel their passion for issues into action and also letting them know how easily and efficiently they can vote,” Spillane said.

A recent poll by Rock the Vote and USA Today found that in the U.S., the issues most important to Millennials (people born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s) are the economy and the need to convert to renewable energy. Spillane said Millennials do not identify strongly with political parties, but are passionate about issues. While they don’t vote as much as older people — the reason Rock the Vote exists — “young people are much less cynical than people assume,” Spillane said.

“Listen to them, and give them opportunities to voice their concerns,” she said. “Demystify democracy and ramp up education about the political institutions that should be responsive to them.”

One way to demystify democracy is to learn more about democratic institutions and the electoral process with the YALI Network’s three-part online course Understanding Elections and Civic Responsibility. Take all three lessons, pass the quiz and earn a free YALI Network certificate.

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