By Arianna Huffington
Out on the campaign trail, President Bush never tires of
talking about how America is facilitating "the march toward democracy"
in Afghanistan and Iraq — evoking the heart-rending images of the
19-year-old Afghan girl who cast the first vote in her country's recent
election and of eager Iraqis preparing to do "the hard work of
What he always fails to mention is how hard we are
making "the hard of work of democracy" here at home — particularly for
Our voting system continues to be an unhealthy stew of
wildly uneven local and state regulations that often confuse first-time
voters and lead to ridiculous situations like the one in Ohio where the
Republican Secretary of State recently attempted to invalidate tens of
thousands of new voter-registration forms because they hadn't been — I
kid you not — printed on thick enough paper. One of the reasons
democracy is such hard work is because of the hard work so many put
into suppressing it.
A new study by Harvard University shows that more than a
third of colleges do not comply with a federal law requiring them to
help students register to vote in the states where they are enrolled —
no small matter when you consider that students represent more than 1
percent of the voting population in crucial swing states such as Ohio,
Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
And when I was speaking at Lawrence University in
Wisconsin, students told me about an arcane rule wherein if they
change dorms, they change electoral districts and had to
re-register -- something lots of them didn't know until they got to the
polling place, by which time it might be too late.
Making matters worse, a number of states have rules that
can make it impossible for out-of-state college students to vote
absentee, while only six states have same-day voter registration, which
is crucial when you consider that young voters often don't start paying
attention until much closer to the election.
You have to wonder what that
first-through-the-polling-place-door Afghan teen would make of all this.
If she didn't know better, she might start to wonder if
the powers-that-be didn't prefer that her young American counterparts
just stay home on November 2nd -- and leave the messy business of
participatory democracy to them.
The bottom line is that our leaders have done a hell of
a job of narrowing the field of engaged young voters. A paltry 36
percent of 18-to-24 year olds bothered to vote in 2000.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that all indications point to a radical
turnaround in young voter turnout in the coming election — a turnaround
fueled by a force more powerful than all the electoral hurdles placed
in young people's way.
Namely, George W. Bush.
He has sparked a youthful uprising unseen since Robert
Kennedy's tragically shortened run for president. Kennedy's 1968
campaign brought together a powerful coalition of progressive young
white voters and disaffected young black voters, united in support of
his twin platform of fighting poverty and ending the war in Vietnam.
Bush's immoral war in Iraq and poverty-spreading domestic policies have
brought those same groups together in an effort to topple him.
Bush is the photo negative of Kennedy. The anti-Bobby.
Perhaps most significantly, he has galvanized a whole
generation of urban youth that had turned its back on voting.
Hip-hoppers who cut their teeth on Tupac Shakur's black rage anthems
are now registering voters, talking electoral politics and gearing up
to help their grandmothers' friends make it to the polls in Cleveland,
Philadelphia and Jacksonville. A new generation of political activists
has been born.
The effort to turn out young voters has been
extraordinary. Both parties and their 527 supporters have been
aggressively pursuing new voters, as have a wide variety of
high-profile, nonpartisan voter registration groups, including Rock the Vote, the New Voters Project, Declare Yourself and the Hip Hop Summit Action Network
. Rock the Vote alone has registered more than 1.3 million people via
its Web site and street teams.
Preliminary figures show that voter registration is
soaring all across the country, with unprecedented numbers of young
voters signing up. In New Mexico, where the 2000 race was decided by
just 365 votes, over 50,000 young people have registered. And in
Wisconsin, where the 2000 margin was only 5,708 votes, well over
110,000 young voters have signed up.
A New York Times analysis of new voter registration in
key swing states indicates that a disproportionate number of these
voters are signing up in traditionally Democratic areas. In Florida,
for instance, new registrations in areas that sided with Al Gore in
2000 are up 60 percent; in areas that sided with Bush, they are up by
only 12 percent. The disparity is even more significant in Ohio, where
new registrations in Democratic areas are up an astounding 250 percent
from 2000, while in Republican areas they are up by only 25 percent.
Of course, registration is just the first step — it
won't mean a thing if the new registrants fail to turn up at the polls
or if, once they get there, they are turned away by a 2004 Katharine
That's why the key to delivering the youth vote, and
with it the keys to the White House, will be which side is most
successful at getting out the vote. Studies have shown that the most
effective way to do this is through peer-to-peer contact — and with
young people this means knocking on dorm doors and repeatedly following
up with e-mails, cell phone calls and text messages.
Which is why the tipping point of 2004 may be reached
not by the big, well-funded voter registration efforts, but by the
under-the-radar efforts of the hundreds of small, independent,
grassroots groups of young people that have joined in the effort to
remove the president from office.
Groups like the League of Pissed Off Voters. Starting
out as a handful of 20ish activists who self-published a book, "How to Get Stupid White Men Out
of Office", they proceeded to launch a website , and began encouraging their
friends to get involved in politics. The League now has close to
100 local chapters and over 500 organizers using the Internet and other
highly creative, 21st Century strategies to spread the word.
And unlike the groups focused solely on voter
registration, the League is looking to fully engage young people in the
political process -- not just on November 2nd, but way beyond.
"This isn't about a short term victory," the League's
founder, Billy Wimsatt, told me, "or about any one candidate.
It's about creating a community, building power locally, and grooming
well-qualified young people to run for office -- it's our own version
of what the right wing has been doing so successfully for so many
In the wake of the 2000 Florida fiasco, Congress passed
the Help America Vote Act. The warm-and-fuzzily named law — evoking
images of Boy Scouts and kindly state election commissioners helping
voters cast their ballots — was going to set uniform national standards
for ensuring that our voting process is sound.
But thanks to political infighting, White House
foot-dragging and a serious dose of underfunding, we find ourselves on
the verge of yet another painful post-election ordeal. You can almost
hear the starter's cry echoing down K Street: "Election lawyers, start
With any luck, though (and with lots of IMing over the
next two weeks), the unexpected beat of the hip-hop generation making
its way to the polls could deliver Kerry an unambiguous victory — and
be a giant step in our march toward a healthier democracy.
© 2004 ARIANNA HUFFINGTON.
DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.