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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, October 24, 2004

Voting rocks

 •  Honolulu entertainers promote the vote

By Jaimee Rose
Gannett News Service

Right now in the United States, there is nothing higher on the hipster radar than registering to vote.

Singer Eve flashes a "V" for "Vote" in Burger King's "Have It Your Way Vote '04" campaign, which encourages young adults to vote.


P. Diddy is stumping for the cause, and if you're down with that, you can buy his shirts that say, "Vote or die." Paris Hilton has been spotted wearing the "Vote or die" shirt, too.

Drew Barrymore's latest film co-star is not Adam Sandler but Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom Barrymore interviews in her MTV voting documentary. There are "Gone voting" designer T-shirts on the pages of InStyle magazine, and every so often on MTV's "Total Request Live," a little box pops up next to Britney Spears or Usher and reminds you: "Choose or lose — vote!"

Teen queen Ashlee Simpson wears a T-shirt that says, "I like to get it on with boys who vote." There is "Rock the Vote," an initiative that has registered millions of young voters; and "Blog the Vote," an Internet diary that chronicles the excitement.

When you log onto HowardStern.com, you are asked to register to vote before you can find those girls in bikinis. "Rock the Vote" is even the theme of two cornfield mazes in Phoenix, where President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are carved out of cornstalks.

This pop-culture/political convergence is a byproduct of a kooky 2000 election that grabbed America's attention: Votes really do count. And the nation's trendsetters, hoping to turn around the dismal 36 percent turnout of 18- to 24-year-old voters that year, are working up a mainly nonpartisan voting frenzy, inspiring youths to the polls in part by appealing to that junior-high instinct in so many Americans: The popular people are doing it, and so should you.

In an election where issues directly affect young voters, from the rising cost of college to the war in Iraq being fought mainly by their peers, the plan seems to be working. Buoyed by hype and a tool that helps people register to vote using the Internet, the Rock the Vote program and its affiliates have registered more than 900,000 voters over the past year, compared with 3 million total voters registered since its 1990 inception.

Over the past few weeks, as registration deadlines loomed, Rock the Vote and its partner sites reported 20,000 downloads of voting forms each day.

And 58 percent of eligible young voters are registered, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., compared with 47 percent in 2000, and of those, 85 percent say they plan to vote in November.

Where they hang out

When it comes to fickle-voting youths, "you have to reach them where they hang out," says Jay Strell, spokesman for Rock the Vote. In reality, they're probably not reading U.S. News & World Report or watching "The News Hour" With Jim Lehrer, but they are poring diligently over magazines like ElleGirl, where voting got a big shout-out last month, and are glued to MTV.

"This puts a message in front of them where they wouldn't see it otherwise," Strell says.

Rock the Vote has even tapped into that teenage/twentysomething attachment: the cell phone. You can sign up to have text messages sent to your phone reminding you to vote.

Although politics was once a passion of youth — think '60s protests, Vietnam-era college rallies — voting has flagged since a 50 percent turnout in 1992. This year, Rock the Vote and its partners are aiming to restore that passion, to draw 20 million voters ages 18 to 29 to the polls, roughly half of that age group's eligible voting pool.

Pop culture has taken a role in politics, from Barbra Streisand singing for President Bill Clinton to this year's anti-Bush Vote for Change concert tour, featuring Crosby, Stills & Nash, or the Redeem the Vote movement, prominently featuring Christian rock bands in an effort to reach American youth.

But this year's fever pitch is remarkable in its nonpartisan neutrality. Of course, this pop-culture pleading prompts the question:

Should it matter if it takes Puff Daddy/P. Diddy and Christina Aguilera to get the vote out, to encourage fulfillment of civic responsibility?

"Any initiative that jump-starts someone exercising their right to vote (is a good thing)," says Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University in New York. "Voting is something that you get better at the more you do. You get into the habit of doing it, you see it as a responsibility. And if it takes a snarky T-shirt, I have no problem with that whatsoever.

"Why should it take celebrity and fashion lines and MTV to get people to do what they should be doing anyway? The same reason it takes all kinds of things to get 18-year-olds to do anything. I suppose I could get them to come to class and do their reading more if Puffy would help me out. I'll have no problem if he's so inclined."

Anxious to vote

Daniel Hobaica, an 18-year-old freshman at Glendale Community College in Arizona, registered to vote this year not just because Ashlee Simpson said to. But when he sees P. Diddy rocking the vote on MTV shows, it does get his attention. "It actually makes me anxious to vote," Hobaica says. "I like when I see those. It reminds me that voting is a pretty important thing."

And it never hurts to feel like you're part of the hip, "in" voting crowd.

Voting is an easy, nonpolarizing platform for celebrities, Syracuse's Thompson says. No one disagrees with voting. There will be no boycotting of albums or picketing of film previews.

Of course, the hipster vote movement also reflects well on its celebrity messengers.

"Their managers and publicity people say, 'OK, what cause are we gonna do?' It's a way to humanize you, a way to get coverage," Thompson says. "It really does help the cause as well."

And, Thompson adds, celebs are "human beings who do think about the fact that they've got an opportunity to do something good."

But will it stick? What happens when Christina Aguilera is no longer drawing them in?

"That's a big question," says Jaime Guzeta, a senior MTV director. "But we know that once an individual has voted, they're more inclined to vote a second time. In that regard, we're introducing a whole new generation to the political process, showing them the power that they have."