Youth in the booth

By VANESSA CZARNECKI  |  January 30, 2008

“I’ve always looked at them cynically,” says 24-year-old Kade Crocford — a first-time voter and Edwards-turned-Obama supporter from Jamaica Plain — of the myriad youth-voting organizations. She calls them part of a “political machine.”

However they’re viewed, though, Rock the Vote and its cohorts have in recent years made significant gains. In 2004, RTV registered approximately 1.2 million to vote through its Web site. And while the 18 to 29 vote is still proportionally the least invested of any voting demographic, kids came out in droves that election, reversing a 32-year decline.

That’s certainly a cause for celebration. Except many of those first-time voters supported John Kerry in 2004 — and still failed to deliver him the election. So while kids may have cast some 4.3 million more ballots than in the previous presidential contest, their cheerleaders hardly seemed victorious. By the time city workers came to sweep the debris from Kerry’s Copley rally gone wrong, Rock the Vote was $700,000 in debt and about to undergo some major changes in management.

Once Citizen Change, famed for the slogan “Vote or Die,” pretty much died on arrival that same year — after two of the campaign’s celebrity spokespersons, Paris Hilton and Ludacris, forgot to register, and a third, 50 Cent, was barred from participating because he’s a convicted felon — the nail was hammered into the movement’s coffin. It no longer seemed to matter that voter turnout for 18 to 29 year olds was up. The youth vote had made a joke of itself once again.

Today, asked why we haven’t seen a repeat performance of the 2003 Faneuil Hall debate, RTV deputy communication director Shavonne Harding had no idea to what I was referring. “We’re still finalizing our plans for 2008,” she says, adding that they’re about to launch an upcoming Super Tuesday vote drive. At this late in the game, though, most states’ registration dates have already past, which means, for the first time in the 18 years since it was founded, Rock the Vote may be almost entirely absent from the primary process.

Stop laughing
This year, however, the youth electorate is not to be taken lightly. As the underestimated voting bloc pushed Barack Obama to an overwhelming victory in the Iowa caucuses, the media scrambled to rewrite the storyline. Hillary Clinton did the same, replacing her old political cronies, and even husband Bill, with kids on her New Hampshire–primary victory platform. “I didn’t do as well with people under 30, and I take responsibility for that,” said Clinton in the aftermath of her Iowa caucuses drubbing. The new star of her campaign: 27-year-old daughter Chelsea.

Youth-voters’ spoils this year haven’t been Obama’s alone. Although 18 to 25 years olds in New Hampshire overwhelmingly supported the Illinois senator, 26 to 29 year olds cast more ballots for Clinton, in no small part helping her to reclaim her status as the depending-on-who-you-ask front-runner. John McCain, too, has surged to victory on that electorate’s strength. And Mike Huckabee was the first out of the gates in the horse race, thanks to an outpouring of support from young Iowa evangelicals — not to mention his shades-of–Bill Clinton stylings on the bass guitar.

So why, after so many years of getting it wrong, are things going right this time around?

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