In the penultimate scene of the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, the fictional musical hit group of the 1930s—the Soggy Bottom Boys—are unmasked at dance hall as a bunch of escaped prison convicts. Attempts to cart them away are foiled when the raucous crowd, loving the musical session, rises up and pressures the Governor to pardon the Boys so they can keep on playing their hits.
Thus is the power of celebrity and culture, where sports stars, actors, and musicians are essential to changing opinions or promoting some desired behavior (good or bad). Is it possible to use our love of culture and icons to get more people, especially younger Americans, to engage in the democratic process?
Enter Rock The Vote, which emerged out of a battle over censorship in music in the early 1990s and refocused to create awareness, attention, and excitement about voting. This year they celebrated their 25th Anniversary by sticking to their roots. At an event in DC’s famous music venue Black Cat, Rock the Vote President Ashley Spillane hosted some of the original key players in the history of the organization: 2 Live Crew and Run DMC. The evening was not only a throwback to the 1990s, but if you’ve ever heard their music, certainly a celebration of anti-censorship activity.
Motivating young voters to be aware, informed, and engaged is no easy feat. There are policies we should promote to encourage fairness, transparency, and ease in the voting process, but policies alone don’t generate interest. CIRCLE, a Democracy Fund grantee and research organization examining young voter participation, indicated that the 2014 Election youth turnout—19.9% of 18-29 year olds—was the lowest registration and turnout rate ever recorded. Education about why government (and therefore voting) is relevant to their lives is essential. Also essential is a national conversation about why voting is important and, dare I write, cool.
Rock the Vote is the best known national organization combining culture and civics to inspire folks to vote—and is one of the best chances to engage people where they’re at. For example Kendall Jenner’s video of her registering to vote using RTV online tools was shared with her vast social network, which today sits at about 37 million Instagram and 12.6 million Twitter followers. Most candidates and issue organizations can only hope to have that kind of megaphone.
On Election Day 2015, NASDAQ invited Rock the Vote to open the tech markets in honor of their 25th annviersary. Betsy Wright Hawkings from the Democracy Fund was there in Times Square to help celebrate with our partners in this work. We will continue to look for all levers to excite new voting communities; we are thrilled to support Rock the Vote in this politically exciting year to come.
Photo Credit: @NASDAQ