The Young and the Registered

You did what?

“After going to city council meeting after city council meeting with a hundred supporters and losing 2-7 each time, we decided that to stop this road from being built, we had to get involved in the electoral scene. We developed a political action committee and a political consulting firm. In four years we’ve gone from a 2-7 vote to a 5-4 vote. We replaced three of our strongest opponents with three champions. We filed a successful ethics charge against one of our strongest opponents, since she was in bed with the developers. The road fight is still going on right now, and we’re hard at work preparing for this November’s council races. Long-term, we’ve built a new political force led by young people of color that has reshaped Albuquerque politics.”

Meet Eli Lee. Formerly the head of an organization called Youth Action, Eli realized early that while organizing young people is great, you have to build electoral power too. His current company,, runs some of the nation’s most sophisticated grassroots political campaigns.

Until I met Eli a couple years ago, I wasn’t really into electoral politics. I think I only voted once in my adult life from age 18 to 28. Even when I was a youth activism consultant for Rock the Vote in the 1990s, I didn’t bother to vote. In my eyes, the job was about connecting folks with “real” political activism–the grassroots kind.

It’s not that I was totally against voting, it’s just that I moved around so much I didn’t know who the local candidates were and I had no reason to believe my one measly vote mattered. To this day, no one in my adult life has ever asked me whether I vote or not. Not once. Not my parents. Not my “political” friends. And until last year I never asked anyone either.

Voting seemed the lowest form of political activity until I met Eli. I’ve spent the past two years as part of a team that created the Future 500 (–the first serious attempt at a directory of youth organizations and activists in the United States. A group of 12 of us talent-scouted 500 of the most kick-ass youth groups in the 50 states. When people asked me what the groups achieved, I found I usually got the biggest reaction when I told them stories of electoral victories, like the one in Albuquerque described by Eli Lee. The only problem was, there weren’t many of these stories. The vast majority of Future 500 groups–among the most vital youth organizations in the United States–were not doing much with electoral politics.

Most of the hottest youth groups are focused on social and community issues and don’t connect them to an electoral agenda. There are reasons for this. One: nonprofits are forbidden to do anything resembling partisan politics (most are even scared to use the legal 20 percent lobbying allowance). Two: no one ever taught us it’s possible to play politics on our terms. Three: we think politics stinks (it does), and we’re too good to get our pure little paws in it.

Last November I had a small revelation. I say revelation because what happened was definitely outside my control. I was working in San Francisco and I was upset about Prop N, a cynical ballot measure targeting homeless people that was pushed by opportunistic local politician Gavin Newsome. I was rooming with an artist who found a discarded couch, and wrote “Gavin Newsome’s idea of a homeless shelter” on it. He convinced me to help him drop it off at Newsome’s house in the plush Marina district. That was fun. I got inspired to vote.

A few days after the election, I sent this memo out to 120 hip-hop activists, organizers, and political folks:

Warning everyone: I am fired up about this! I voted in San Francisco this year and guess what? I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO VOTE FOR on 80 percent of the candidates and ballot initiatives!!! Lucky for me, someone gave me a Bay Guardian [a local alternative weekly] voter guide and it saved my life. . . . As far as I know, the Guardian is the only high-circulation newspaper in the country that prints progressive candidate endorsements on the cover before the election. Without the Guardian, I would’ve left 80 percent of the choices blank and I would’ve left the polling place feeling completely disempowered. Me– an educated/politicized person who is on the advisory board of Rap the Vote.

I suggested on a whim that we start a League of Hip-Hop Voters, modeled on the League of Conservation Voters (which I knew little about, except that it was effective). Within hours, my in box was overflowing–more than 80 people from all over the country wrote back to say they wanted to get involved in this new effort that did not even exist yet. The more we looked into it, the more we realized that the void we stumbled onto was bigger than we’d realized. There was no national organization teaching young progressives how to win elections.

A few dozen of us are now devoted to building the league. Some of us are working on a nonprofit organization, the League of Young Voters Education Fund (, slated to go live autumn 2003), that is going to collaborate with dozens of national organizations and hundreds of local ones to train 18-to-30-year-olds to get smart about politics. Others are working with a connected PAC entity called League of Independent Voters/League of Pissed Off Voters, which will use the Internet to facilitate the creation of local progressive voting guides. People in many communities–Cincinnati, for example–will score their local, state, and national candidates. They’ll create scorecards and endorsement slates, which will be distributed at high schools, colleges, cafés, bus stops, liquor stores, and the beach. People will pledge to vote the slate for their local area. Once these votes are verified by an independent pollster–Voila!–we’ve got an instant network of local progressive voting blocs that can hold politicians accountable.

We believe this voting bloc strategy can capture the imagination of young nonvoters and cut the political teeth of a new generation of organizers. Initially, we want to target 3 to 5 million cynical young progressives, aiming to inspire more than a million of them to take the pledge and vote the slate in 2004. In a tight race, we believe this voting bloc could swing a presidential election (in 2000, Oregon was decided by 6,765 votes, Wisconsin by 5,708, Iowa by 4,144, and New Mexico by 366 votes, not to mention Florida) as well as congressional, state, and local races. (Even as unpopular as the Green Party is right now with some progressives, they still hold 174 local offices in 24 states.)

We’re starting small. With word-of-mouth and no budget, we already have more than 25 functioning Politics ‘N’ Pancakes brunch discussion groups across the country (8 in swing states). We’re putting out a book in January with Softskull Press called How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office, (although some women and people of color deserve the same fate), which tells 15 local stories of young people who actually swung elections — replacing mayors in Selma, Alabama and New Paltz, New York; swinging a Senate seat in South Dakota; and electing progressives to Congress like Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin and Raul Grijalva in Tucson. Some progressive young people are getting themselves elected, like 22-year-old Dan Siegel on the Providence, Rhode Island city council or 24-year-old Alisha Thomas in the Georgia legislature.

I have never felt so invigorated in my life. The League of Independent Voters is only one exciting new initiative inspired by the current political climate. Literally dozens of groundbreaking new strategies for 2004 are being hatched as you read this. The National Youth and Student Peace Coalition (the campus network that organized the March 5 student strike on 450 campuses) is developing strategies for 2004. A group of young organizers is launching a National Hip Hop Political Convention May 19-22, 2004, in Newark. Even Rock the Vote is getting remarkably more strategic with an online advocacy arm addressing issues young people care about and a 40-city Community Street Team program.

Let me tell you a secret. None of these high-falutin’ organizations mean jack unless people like you who dislike–or pretend not to care about–electoral politics get involved by dipping your pure little paws into the litter box.

Haven’t you been holding it in long enough?

How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office, due out in January 2004 from Brooklyn-based publisher Softskull Press, relays several stories of young progressives either swinging elections or getting elected themselves.

From Yes! Magazine (Fall 2003). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from 800/937-4451.

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