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PROFspectives: Rock the Vote

News Story

Media, celebrity, and politics reign supreme this election year. Here at Pace, faculty are weighing in on an issue that their students can get behind—the youth vote.

With looming primaries this month, the US will get one step closer to electing its next president. Could it be New York’s very own Trump or Clinton? Or will Sanders, Cruz, Kasich, or a new candidate yet to come out of the woodwork to take it all? Regardless of who wins the race to the White House, one thing is certain: it’s going to continue to get a lot of buzz.

And if you ask Pace faculty, as Opportunitas has for this month’s “PROFspectives”, that media buzz is helpful in getting young voters like Pace students out to the polls on election day. One organization in particular has caught the attention of our faculty and millenials alike, and has been making a dent in young voter turn out numbers since the early 90s. Rock the Vote combines media and policy strategies with celebrity endorsements and more to appeal to a demographic with the voting power to sway an election.

Theresa K. Lant, PhD | Professor of Management and Academic Director, Arts and Entertainment Management Program

What do Idina Menzel and Wyclef have in common? They ROCK THE VOTE! Rock the Vote is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that has “revolutionized the way we use pop culture, music, art, and technology to inspire political activity,” ( Hugely successful, Rock the Vote has been promoting and facilitating voter registration for young people since 1990. They were an instrumental force behind the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, (aka the Motor Vehicle Bill) and, in 1999, created an online voter registration tool. Since their founding they have registered millions of new voters, and motivated them to turn out and vote. Why has Rock the Vote been so successful in motivating young people to participate in the political process? Through its partnership with numerous media partners, musicians, actors, and celebrities, Rock the Vote has been able to grab the attention of millennials, the largest and most diverse generation in US history. The potential power of the youth vote can be seen today in their support of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (D-VT).

The fusion of pop culture and involvement in the political process works because it speaks to the priorities of young people in a voice that is relevant to them. Young people rarely hear politicians speaking to them regarding issues they care about. This leaves them feeling disconnected from the political process, and as a result, they don’t register and they don’t vote. Cultural expression is essential to the human experience. All societies produce culture (dance, music, written expression) as a form of individual and collective expression of ideas and aspirations. Cultural expression, especially contemporary music, has long been a conduit of voice for young people. Artists give voice to those who often feel they are not represented by established institutions. Protest songs have a long history in the US, providing a voice for alternative points of view from the Revolutionary War to the Civil Rights Movement. Rock the Vote works because it connects the identity and passion of young people with political engagement and the democratic process.

Jessica Lavariega-Monforti, PhD | Professor and Department Chairperson, Political Science

Historically, the youth vote of the 18 to 30 year-old crowd, has had huge potential to impact elections but fails to deliver. However youth turnout rose to over 51% in 2008, making it the third highest youth turnout ever. Much of this increase is attributed to excitement about Obama's candidacy. Efforts to build on that momentum by non-profit organizations like Rock the Vote (RtV) continue today. RtV points out that millennials (defined as those aged between 18 and 29 years old, born between 1985 and 1996) represent the largest generation in the US. RtV coordinates with a wide variety of other organizations such as iHeartMedia, bebe, Lollapalooza, LULAC, and uses social media outlets like Tumblr and Facebook.

Despite setbacks, RtV has had a lasting impact on the electoral landscape. It spearheaded passage of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, a law that allows people to register to vote when they apply for or renew their driver's license. Over the last decade, it pushed for online voter registration, offering a simple form for people to fill out on its website. The organization has contributed to knowledge about mobilizing the youth vote; a few years ago RtV found that e-mail and text messages arriving from unexciting senders like “Election Center” often do better than those with livelier “from” lines. Another example includes findings from a January 2016 USA Today/Rock the Vote Millennial Poll, which shows that millennials are more pragmatic than ideological, and not yet firmly aligned with either political party. The top issue for them is the economy, specifically employment, the minimum wage, and paid leave; followed by college affordability and student debt; and foreign policy and terrorism, health care, and guns. Across partisan lines, millennials have reached consensus on issues that are divisive for their elders. The vast majority of those surveyed (80%) say the US should transition to mostly clean/renewable energy by 2030. By more than two to one, they say government should invest more heavily in public transportation, and 82% support background checks for all gun purchasers.

Democracy is challenged by large gaps in voter participation. Closing this gap requires sustained effort, thus work by Rock the Vote is essential to maintain a healthy democracy. It serves as liaison between government, politicians, and civil society.

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