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Crucial young voters are targets in weekend push

on October 17, 2008


Oct. 17 — On most days, you can usually find 19-year-old Lajon Collins at the Bushrod Recreation Center, playing basketball, lifting weights or just hanging out with friends.

But come Nov. 4, there is one place you probably won’t find him: at the polls.

Collins isn’t registered to vote. And he doesn’t plan on voting in the upcoming election either.

“Not interested,” he said bluntly on a recent afternoon. “Never been.”

Collins’s reasoning might seem surprising in an election where youth voter turnout has surged on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle. But as it gets closer to Election Day, young people like Collins are increasingly becoming the focus of some organizations’s last-ditch efforts to get as many people out to the polls as possible.

In both the 2006 and 2008 primaries, young voters have made the difference in several tight races, according to the nonpartisan group Rock the Vote, including in New Hampshire, Iowa, Montana, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, and in California, where a large group of 18-to-29-year-olds helped Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain win the primary.

But largely overlooked in those figures are the nearly 16 million 18-to-25-year-olds who have no college experience—those like Collins and some of his peers. So far only about three million of these young people have come out to vote this year, according to a recent report in the magazine The Nation. They come disproportionally from low-income communities, are mostly black and Latino, and stand to gain the most from this election.

That is why groups such as Oakland-based Town Business Network are starting to hold events encouraging young people to get registered to vote. Today, the organization will kick off a series of events, starting with a panel discussion at Oakland’s Youth UpRising, about the value of voting. Other events will follow throughout the rest of the weekend, with a goal of registering 125,000 young people to vote.

Mickey Johnson, 24, left, sits with Anthony Mazur, 21, center, and her father Phil Calligan, at Mazur's business, Discount Custom Audio, in Oakland on Wednesday.

Mickey Johnson, 24, left, sits with Anthony Mazur, 21, center, and her father Phil Calligan, at Mazur's business, Discount Custom Audio, in Oakland on Wednesday.

Across the country, other organizations have been making the same effort to get this disenfranchised youth population out to the polls. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, reportedly this year has registered 1.3 million new voters, most of whom are younger, low-income minorities. (The organization is currently facing scrutiny for allegedly creating fake voter registrations in several states.)

Here in the Bay Area, even churches are getting involved. For the last few months, Covenant Worship Center in Berkeley has been registering people to vote, specifically targeting young people in South Berkeley, West Berkeley and North Oakland.

“We have an opportunity in this election for young people, particularly in the inner-city areas, to really be represented,” said Covenant Worship Center Senior Pastor K.R. Woods. “And the only way to reach that demographic is to go out and get them.”

Charles Johnson, 34, the executive director of the Town Business Network, said he started the organization two years ago because he was concerned about the lack of civic engagement among folks in the hip hop generation.

Unlike the popular notion that says youth voter turnout is fickle, he found that young people want their voices heard at the polls. But in order to get them to register to vote, he said, they have to be engaged with a lot of face-to-face interaction and on a level that resonates with their culture.

That notion was supported in a recent study published by the James Irvine Foundation that concluded the most effective ways of reaching disenfranchised young people are through face-to-face contact and during the final weeks of an election.

Johnson points to the efforts his organization has been making—such as launching music videos, PSAs and an album titled “Wake Yo’ Game Up,” featuring an all-star lineup of popular Bay Area hip hop and spoken-word artists—to show that even young people who seemingly have an aversion to civic responsibility are showing increased interest in voting.

“We stay in the streets. We let them know how important their voice is,” he said. “We get responses from fans, saying they like this other side of the artist. And it gives (the artists) a sense of civic engagement when they get exposed to this experience of giving back.”

Johnson said he witnessed the album’s impact a week ago, when Beeda Weeda, an Oakland rapper who appeared on the album’s title track, told him he was so inspired by the organization’s efforts that he registered to vote himself for the first time in his life.

On the other hand, it still looks like it may be a challenge to get young people like Collins engaged in the election.

Standing in front of the Bushrod Recreation Center with his cell phone plugged to his ear, he said he and his friends were aware of the election. But the potential death threats Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama could face if he wins, Collins said, have been about the only election-related topics on their minds.

Not every young person in this demographic, however, is as disaffected.

A few miles up the street on the corner of Market Street and West MacArthur Boulevard, a group of young people earlier in the week spoke passionately about how they thought this election would be one the greatest in their lifetimes.

Anthony Mazur, 21, and Mickey Johnson, 24, were sitting under the shade of an awning at Mazur’s car audio installation shop, Discount Custom Audio, with several other people. Neither have college experience.

Sporting silver-rimmed aviator sunglasses and with a row of earrings in one ear, Mazur said he hasn’t voted in every election since he became eligible to vote, but that he is definitely casting his vote this year. He said he is noticing that other young people are getting just as engaged in the process.

“I think more people are watching the debates and giving care to what’s happening this time,” he said. “They’re breaking the routine.”

Johnson said she was seeing the same effect occur, and largely because of all the messages that have been specifically targeting that group during this election.

The certified nursing assistant, who also is planning to vote on Nov. 4, said she, too, had been caught up in the excitement.

For example, she recently bought a magazine, “and it had Obama on damn near every page.” After thinking about it for a while, she said, she realized that she didn’t have any memorabilia of the presidential candidate and immediately bought an Obama T-shirt.

This election “will be an eye-opener for a new generation of black people, for all people in America,” she said of her reasoning. “We’re always talking about change, and Obama is change.”

But whether that excitement about voting will spread to the rest of her peers, she said, will have to be seen on Election Day.

“When it’s time to count them ballots,” she said, “then we’ll know what time it is.”

For more information about the Town Business Network and the album, “Wake Yo’ Game Up,” click here.||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||


  1. Malik Ricard on October 20, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Good article my brother. It is a sad reality that many young voters still feel out of the loop with this upcoming election. But when you think about it, so much focus has been placed on the “middle class” and the economic state of country. When you are disenfranchised, and are facing everyday struggles; you might feel like your voice will never be heard. I too feel like my daily issues won’t be effected by the election, even though Obama will hopefully win the election. There is so much political red tape and back door games being played out on t.v; that average citizens can’t really identify with those “in power”. True, I’ve heard plenty of people comment on the possible death threats if a Black man becomes president. In a society fueled by reality shows and shock media, a catstrophic event of that magnatude would of coures be headlines everywhere. But with so many youth already numb to violence and tragedy, it is hard to break through with positive messages of change. Keep putting out these good articles!!!!

  2. Ric Ricard on October 26, 2008 at 12:58 am

    Well written, timely article, son. Yes, it will take more than the election of Barack Obama to engage the Lajons of this country. To them, it’s still abstract; it changes nothing fundamentally in their realities. Until they can begin to see possibilities for THEM, the disconnect remains. I do applaud the work, however, of brother Johnson and the Town Business Network, and Pastor Woods and the Covenant worship Center. As Frederick Douglass said, “Without a struggle, there can be no progress”. We have to engage and challenge young folks to believe in something, to take a stand! Let’s hope Lajon READS this article, thinks about what he and others are quoted as saying, then talks to some of his peers about it!!

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