Midterm Test: Who’s Courting the Youth?

By Brentin Mock Apr 11, 2014

Since 2004, the League of Young Voters Education Fund has been teaching young people of color about political issues and helping increase their participation in elections. Its executive director, Rob "Biko" Baker, wrote about political issues for magazines such as the The Source long before that. I caught up with Baker a couple of weeks ago to discuss to discuss the critical takeaways from the presidential election of 2012 and the importance of this year’s midterm elections. Our interview below, edited for clarity and length, shows how both the Democratic and Republican parties have been failing young voters and how the political game has been rigged against people of color. Also, you’ll want to know why we should pay close attention to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. 

In 2010, just before the last midterm elections, you assembled a bunch of bloggers, journalists and writers to discuss the stakes of those races. What did you learn from that?

I realized how much more the blogosphere was in tune with the with the civic engagement space. I didn’t think at first that people understood the details and difference between [for example] what the Supreme Court was doing and what legislative and executive branches did. But if you look at what Bossip, Vibe, allhiphop.com were doing, they were all keeping track of what was going on. 

After the gathering, voter turnout was pretty low and the Democratic Party got wallopped, losing their majority in the House and watching the rise of the Tea Party. How did you feel about that? 

While you said the Democratic Party got walloped if you look at counties where there are young and black people, the trend of our increased vote share continues to rise. So in many counties across the country you saw increases between 2006 and 2010 in our vote share, but we’re reaching a plateau where it seems they’re trying to get water out of a rock. [Meaning] the Democratic Party hasn’t embraced youth culture and youth leadership. They are doing the same thing that they been doing. I think where the Democratic Party and progressive left make investments in youth of color leadership there will be increased turnout, but I also think that some of the progressive left has given up on fighting because of redistricting. 

Explain how redistricting has complicated the elections game. 

Because of the [Republican Party’s] 2010 wins and because they were able to control redistricting process in many states, communities have been gerrymandered. So black voters can only vote for black officials and those officials hold little power outside of a few key [congressional] districts throughout the United States. And the subtext of this is that in many places, some of that gerrymandering was illegal. In many states there wasn’t a transparent redistricting process. 

Do you think young voters get how important redistricting is to voting rights, the way they see fighting voter ID laws, for example?

Yes, there are a few us who get the Census and understand its connections to redistricting. I just don’t think people understand how deeply entwined this is to political power and maintaining it. [Is it important] to the average kid I would meet while canvassing at a party? Hell no. But I’d say maybe 20 percent get it and are more active about addressing it today than when I was growing up. 

So as we approach midterm elections this year, what’s your call to action to young voters this time around?

It’s the same message that it’s been: If voting rights weren’t important, would they be trying to steal them from you? Would they be trying to make it harder for you to vote and passing weirder laws to control election administration? It’s the same story. You have our group or population that have been voting at high levels since 2004, but things have gotten harder for them materially lately. So hopefully this year we’ll get some wins for [young people]. 

What’s it going to take for the political parties to take young voters of color seriously?

It’s going to take these older organizations being honest with themselves and them passing over the reins to younger leaders. These older organizations are going to have to because they’re going over a cliff. The progressive left need to be making some significant changes in the leadership of these organizations, or we’ll continue to have the same ol same ol.’ One thing I’ve seen, is young white kids and young people of color working together in ways I’ve never imagined. State and federal level polls show that young white voters and young voters of color can be messaged to in the same way, but older organizations continue to run these shops. They have these silos, and they do all their messaging accordingly. On certain issues there’s some nuance you can pull out for messaging, but every poll I’ve seen shows that young voters have similar values that they vote on across race. The older organizations need to think about that instead of trying to create all of these different silos. 

Just so we’re clear, who are these "older organizations"?

Mainly labor unions, but also some civil rights and your traditional voter engagement groups. And I love being the 35 year-old at these meetings. I was at one of these [voter engagement] meetings recently and a young college grad at the table comes up to me afterward and says, ‘I don’t get this at all.’ [Young people] just don’t connect to the very important information that these older organizations were sharing. 

The Democratic Party has suggested recently that they anticipate the same robust voter turnout this year that they had in 2012. Do you see that?

If any field person told you they were using 2012 as a metric, it better be with a whole bunch of 2010 and 2006 data as an average. If they’re not then they’re not doing good work. I do think there will be some surprises this year. Some youth of color will have huge turnouts in some areas, but the way the game is rigged due to gerrymandering, even if we have great turnout we’re only influencing a congressional district here or there. For governors’ races we’ll be able to make some impact, but the parties are not making the necessary investments in us that they need to, and then the organizations that are doing a bunch of this work on this are cash-strapped–moreso now than almost anytime since [League of Young Voters] have been around. 

Are there any recent examples of progressive candidates who’ve benefitted from young people of color turning up to vote?

I feel there’s been some good stuff at the local level. New York’s new mayor Bill DeBlasio and other examples like Cory Booker. Locally, in Milwaukee’s alderman race, there are a bunch of brothers under 40 running. But if we’re not fighting for voting rights and protecting young voters from voter suppression, and if we’re not fighting for jobs and investments in entrepreneurialism, and not seriously dealing with the criminal justice system, then any party is going to lose young people. You know what scares me, though? A guy like Rand Paul, who is all about state’s rights, but he comes out saying we should end the war on drugs and stop NSA spying — he is connecting with a lot more young people than anyone knows. In some ways this is good because that makes for more competition, but with that appeal on those issues you can see a lot of young black voters going for Rand Paul. 

Do you think Paul is genuine when he advocates for those things, or this is just part of a strategy to attract young voters of color to the Republican Party?

Every politician has ulterior motives. I feel like it’s a strategic play, but it also aligns with their core messaging and ideology. For progressives and millennials, in many ways the War on Drugs and the NSA spying stuff is closer to their hearts, so they align with conservatives on these things. Could you imagine a MIke Huckabee and Rand Paul type mix or Rand Paul and Paul Ryan running in some of these states where you only need a 10,000 to 15,000 voter edge to win. You have some of these young black men who were just cool on Obama and you start to pull some of those guys away, the scenario looks crazy.   

What are some of the more effective strategies for turning out young voters of color that you all have employed?

We have been developing a strong text message list. In some of these communities, we have contact information for thousands of young voters that no one else has. On Election Day, we bought ads on websites that young people of color visit most frequently, like Global Grind, World Star Hip Hop, allhiphop.com, giving out voting information. We were sending out information every 30 seconds in urban hubs that no one else touches. We were able to recently recruit a bunch of kids from SXSW, which isn’t about voting at all. Also, League of Young Voters just acquired the Generation Alliance, which is a coalition of a dozen youth organizations that have as part of their mission the goal of engaging people of color around voting. So we’re not only expand our own tools, but also sharing and using tools developed by a dozen other organizations. 

The Republican Party says they have upped their game in terms of outreach to people of color. Can you see the improvements?

It’s interesting because on one side you see that Republicans have hired some smart African-Americans and given them a little bit of freedom with the checkbook for outreach programs. I feel like that’s smart and strategic, but only because the Democratic Party isn’t doing the same thing. In this moment, they are not rewarding youth of color with leadership positions. So they’re losing this opportunity. if there is an Achilles heel for Republicans, it’s race. They say they don’t want to let go of the Latino vote, but they are dragging their feet on immigration reform. They’ll likely get better at it, though. 

Any parting message about prospects for young voters of color as we approach the midterms?

Just that, the rising electorate of voters of color is real, and the data doesn’t lie. We have to look at all these demographics seriously. You have to know where they are and not run away from them. When corporate America wants to attract young people of color they go and get the coolest, hippest rappers, graphic designers and others who we will flock to. You cannot look at any political party or civic engagement group and say they are as competitive as Adidas with this demographic.