Young voters seek to rock the elections

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The registration deadline to get 18-29 year-olds eligible to vote ended Monday and youth oriented groups are now fully focused on directing young voters toward the voting booth.

RELATED STORY: COLLEGE CAMPUSES MOBILIZE TO GET OUT THE VOTE

In line with the political atmosphere across the nation, polls indicate that young voters who supported President Barack Obama by a two-to-one margin and propelled down ticket Colorado Democrats to victory in 2008 may not be as excited about voting staying true to the blue in 2010.

New Era Colorado volunteers packed the bus to canvass neighborhoods in Get Out the Vote efforts.
Rock the Vote staffer Verena Lowe, kneeling, with a future voter. Background, Lieschen Gargano staffs the table at the Colorado Springs event.
At a Rock the Vote registration deadline event at the University of Colorado-Boulder on Oct. 4, Carrie Jackson, New Era’s program director, assists a young voter. Standing at right, CU-Boulder student Kevin Patterson volunteers.

“We’re really seeing this across the state. The college students are actually coming to our chapters, rather than us having to go out and really recruit,” said Troy Ard, president of the Colorado College Republicans. “You’ve seen such a swing from what you had in 2008 to what you have in 2010 as far as enthusiasm and support for Democrats and the Democratic agenda.”

The change in attitude may be due in part to the anti-incumbent attitude driven by the tea party movement, according to Brett Moore, president of the Denver Metro Young Republicans.

“We’ve definitely seen a lot of new faces get involved with the advent of the some of the more conservative, freedom movement-type candidates that we’ve seen come about this year,” Moore said.

According to a poll by Rock the Vote conducted in the state Aug. 25-Sept. 6, voters under the age of 30 are disillusioned with the current direction of government and the Obama administration. Of the 307 polled, 57 percent think the nation is headed in the wrong direction and 64 percent say they are more cynical about politics than two years ago. Only 27 percent say they’re pleased with Obama’s performance in office, compared to 46 percent who are disappointed and 27 percent who are not sure. The president’s favorability rating hovers at 50 percent, while 46 percent hold unfavorable views.

Despite signs of disillusionment, 81 percent said they plan to vote this year. In another poll by Washington think-tank New Policy Institute, which is linked to a left-leaning advocacy group, 89 percent of 600 young Coloradans polled said they were likely to vote.

Young voter registration efforts weren’t affected by the rising pessimism either, according to Rock the Vote and New Era Colorado, two groups working in conjunction to register voters this year. The coalition registered over 10,000 young people in the state by the Oct. 4 deadline. That’s a high tally in a midterm election, according to Steve Fenberg, executive director of New Era Colorado. In 2008 they registered 12,000 voters, the highest mark ever reached in one election cycle by the organization.

Pat Waak, state Democratic chairman, said the party is working to recapture the same young voters who cast their first vote in 2008 for Obama.

“Some of the frustration on the progressive side is they expected a lot more to happen a lot faster, and of course we know that didn’t happen because no one, I think, knew how bad the economic situation was,” Waak said. “Secondly when you’re very idealistic — I still have some of that myself — you think everything’s going to happen immediately but then you find out that there’s all kinds of road blocks.”

According to the Rock the Vote survey, 42 percent of young people in the state this year identify with Democrats or lean left, compared to 33 percent who identify as Republicans or conservatives. That amounts to a nine-point reduction in the Democrats’ lead since 2008.

Gena Ozols, head of the Colorado Young Democrats, is leading the charge this month to mobilize young volunteers in CD 3 and CD 7 to canvass and make phone calls on behalf of Democratic incumbent Reps. John Salazar and Ed Perlmutter. Ozols said Obama voters are one of the key targets.

“A lot of them feel that the job has been taken care of. They got the congressional (victories) in 2006, they got the White House in 2008 and wait, we’re still bugging them, why are we still bugging them?” Ozols said. “In 2008 there was a wonderful sense of accomplishment and I think the accomplishment has turned into laziness.”

Ozols is orchestrating a large phone-banking event on October 30 to turn out the Democratic vote in a final push.

State Republican Chairman Dick Wadhams said Republicans aren’t tailoring a message specific to young people because the entire electorate can see that Democrats have failed under Obama.

Appealing to younger voters comes “mainly through our overall message that we oppose the failed stimulus bill that has driven unemployment to 9.5 percent, that we oppose the health care monstrosity that is going to drive up health care costs for younger people, that we oppose ‘cap and trade’ that will drive up taxes on families and businesses and kill jobs, and we oppose the card check legislation that would eliminate the secret ballot — and young voters would be terribly turned off by the notion of eliminating the secret ballot in union elections,” Wadhams said.

Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate against appointed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, has visited several college campuses, but agreed with Wadhams that an alternate message for young voters isn’t necessary.

“It’s the same message we have for everyone else that we need to: A, create jobs —the youth unemployment rate is the highest it’s been since I believe the Great Depression. The second thing we’re focusing on is the debt because the youth is going to have to pay for that,” said Owen Loftus, Buck’s spokesman.

In contrast, Bennet has gone out of his way to speak to young voters. Three weeks ago he reached out to Colorado college students with a YouTube video response to a video they made asking him to clarify his stance on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The video had over 37,000 views through last week.

Bennet has also repeatedly highlighted his support for the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which ended federal subsidies to banks, and Buck’s willingness to do away with federal education loans all together. (The Buck campaign refutes that claim, saying Buck is against a government takeover of the student loan market.)

According to the New Policy Institute poll, 36 percent of young people prefer Bennet, 27 percent prefer Buck and 37 percent are still undecided. In the gubernatorial race, Democratic candidate John Hickenlooper holds a commanding lead among young people, earning 43 percent support compared to 18 percent for Republican candidate Dan Maes and seven percent for American Constitution candidate Tom Tancredo, while 31 percent remain undecided.

Not unlike national polls, the economy and access to jobs tops the list of important issues for young people according to the Rock the Vote poll. Improving K-12 education, reducing the cost of college and reducing the federal deficit also top the priority list.

“I think it’s going to be whichever party does a better job speaking to them or caring about actually speaking to them that can have an advantage in this election,” said John Anzalone, partner for the polling firm Anzalone Liszt Research based in Montgomery, Ala., which partnered with the Tarrance Group to administer the Rock the Vote poll.

Engaging a growing demographic
With several divisive ballot issues and up-for-grabs elections for U.S. Congress and Senate, the youth voting bloc “could be the bump that a candidate or issue needs to pass, especially in youth-heavy areas like Boulder and Fort Collins,” Fenberg said.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, 325,440 people 24 and younger are registered to vote and 652,496 between ages 25 and 34 are registered.

Every age group has seen a rise in registered voters since 2008 but none more than voters under 24, which has increased by 42.3 percent, and voters between 25 and 35, which has ballooned by 67.9 percent. Together, both groups account for 42.8 percent of the 842,000 new voters in the state since December 2008.

“I think there’s so much room for improvement and growth amongst this population that it would be a mistake not to pay attention to them and encourage them to vote your way and turn them out,” Fenberg said.

Now the challenge is to get those voters to the polls. In 2008, Fenberg said New Era Colorado, which mostly supports Democratic candidates, had an 86 percent turnout rate for people who registered to vote with the organization. This year Fenberg and Rock the Vote’s Colorado coordinator, Kyle Hamm, plan to continue what worked in 2008: taking the message to where young people spend their time.

Through October the groups, working as a single entity, are reaching potential voters through online education, events on college campuses, concerts, festivals such as the Mile High Music Festival this summer, and by organizing bar crawls where volunteers urge fellow indulgers to vote.

“People don’t really want to go out of their way to participate in elections, but I think if you could go to them, you have to make it social,” Fenberg said. “Instead of voting being something separate from your social life, it could actually be intertwined and combined.”

The New Era Colorado bus, which was on display at a fundraiser by the group in Boulder on Sept. 29, is a canvass party on wheels — one of the ways New Era Colorado makes politics fun for young volunteers. The event attracted Democrats including Bennet’s wife Susan Daggett, state Sen. Rollie Heath, Boulder County Commissioner Cindy Dominico, Boulder City Councilwoman K.C. Becker, CU regent candidate Melissa Hart, and state House District 11 candidate Deb Gardner.

The bus, packed with 40 to 50 volunteers, has already made stops in Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and Denver, with more stops on the Western Slope still to come. Canvassers spread out in neighborhoods to encourage people to vote and provide a ballot guide with New Era Colorado’s endorsements of candidates and issues.

If the New Era bus is considered a canvassing party, then the group’s upcoming event on Halloween may be called a bash. Trick or Vote, to be held at the Ogden Theater in Denver later this month, culminates the get-out-the-vote effort into one huge canvassing event capped off by a concert at the end of the night. Canvassers will knock on doors in Denver all day and then meet at the theater for a concert featuring DJ Z-Trip, billed as an international sensation.

A Yale statistician studied the affects of a similar Trick or Vote event in 2008 and reported that it increased the turnout rate in the canvass area by 5.5 to 7.2 percent, according to Fenberg.

The Internet rules
According to the Secretary of State’s office, people between the ages of 17 and 29 are more likely than any other age group to register online. Since the state’s online registration launched in April, 5,099 people age 17 to 19 have registered online as well as another 11,382 between the ages of 20 and 29.

The numbers decrease in incremental order as voters become older, with 4,821 people between ages 60 to 69 having registered online and 1,569 people 70 or older doing likewise.

Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, a Democrat, has been visiting high schools in Denver, Castle Rock, Westminster and Springfield since April to encourage students to register and vote, according to Rich Coolidge, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office.

“Buescher has made this a priority doing outreach for young people, particularly using the online voter registration system and explaining that 17 year olds who turn 18 before Election Day can register before their birthday,” Coolidge said.

Hamm, who is operating Rock the Vote’s Colorado chapter this year, said some voters between 17 and 19 are looking forward to voting since they were too young in 2008.

“These people are excited to vote because of the excitement that was built in 2008. We have a lot of people registered who regretted not being able to participate,” he said.

ElectionLand Colorado, a new online education tool engineered this year by Rock the Vote, is an example of the plethora of ways to capitalize on the popularity of social networking. Users participate by asking election-related questions online in an open forum setting. The questions are answered by journalists John Tomasic from the blog Colorado Independent, Patricia Calhoun from Westword and blog editor Shad Murib from New Era News. In the three weeks since its launch, about 20 questions have been posted and answered.

“Most young people, if they can’t Google it to figure it out, the likelihood they actually end up doing something is a little bit lower,” Hamm said. “But when its there right at the tip of your fingers, you can get it on your phone or on your computer, you’re much more likely to spend the time to research, and when it’s all in one place, it’s really helpful.”

ElectionLand users can also find their polling place, sign up for election reminders and register to vote using Colorado’s new online registration system through the Secretary of State’s site.

Using Internet tools is only the start of political trends aimed at capturing this new generation of voters, which will outnumber baby boomers by 17 million in 2020. Michael Hais, co-author of the 2008 book Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, said the generation born between 1982 and 2003, coined the “millennial” generation, marks an important turn in American politics.

“Every 40 years a new generation arises to remake American politics, but also a new communication technology comes along that really shakes up things. In the 1930s it was radio, in the 1960s it was TV, and now its social networking,” Hais said.

Ard, president of the College Republicans, said social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook help to sustain excitement among the electorate but don’t necessarily foster it.

“It’s much easier, thanks to the advent of social networking, to keep them involved and more importantly to keep them informed and get a command of the issues,” he said. “But it’s issues like the economy that create the grassroots as a major force in getting these people active.”

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com