Registering young people to vote is not only smart in the near term by encouraging empowerment through voting, but also great for the long-term health of the democracy, one non-profit's president says.
Celebrities such a teen pop star Miley Cyrus, and actors Neal Patrick Harris and Jane Lynch, as well as other notables, encourage eligible millennial voters -- and there are millions of them -- to rock the vote come Nov. 6, Election Day.
Rock the Vote is a national non-partisan organization dedicated to "registering, engaging and empowering young people to participate in our democracy ... to make sure their voices are heard," Rock the Vote President Heather Smith said.
The organization targets eligible voters in the 18- to 29 age group, a diverse group of millennials Smith said numbers about 46 million, or about one in every four eligible voters in the country.
Rock the Vote thinks about their issues concerns and culture to "speak to them in a meaningful way" and use physical and virtual platforms to reach that demographic, she said.
"We go where they are," such as cellphones and online social networking sites as Facebook, Twitter and Tumbler, and use online videos to explain why voting matters, Smith said.
Rock the Vote goes where young people congregate -- concerts, music festivals, sporting events, high schools, colleges and the Internet. The Rock the Vote road trip visits high schools and college campuses across the country to register young people to vote.
"We want to get them registered to vote," she said. "There are huge barriers to them actually participating."
Smith noted the deadline for voter registration has passed in many states, meaning young voters who haven't registered can't cast ballots next month. The organization's website, rockthevote.com, includes a list of state voter registration deadlines, as well as links to register online.
"We do a little of everything," she said. "Where they're hanging or coming together is another opportunity."
"We think about what kind of culture is engaging young people today," Smith said. "We try to keep up with popular culture."
For example electronic dance music is building and the DJs have "millions of fans ... in a really tight community," she said. "We ended up with 'Spin the Vote.'
"We take what's in the moment to be relevant to our audience," Smith said, with long-term goals in mind of adding to voter rolls.
She advised both presidential candidates, and anyone else wanting to win with the youth vote, "that you have to ask."
"Sometimes we forget that people don't show up by accident. It takes an investment to reaching out and targeting any voter you want to vote for you," whether soccer moms, seniors or youth, she said.
In 2010, Smith led Rock the Vote in its largest midterm election effort, generating more than 300,000 voter registration applications, engaged thousands of volunteers and increased youth turnout in targeted precincts. In 2008, Rock the Vote registered an eye-popping 2.25 million people.
It's hard work "registering them to vote, going to where they are, addressing them, talking about their issues, making it [the election] it feel relevant in their lives."
If candidates are willing to make that kind of investment, "it works," Smith said.
And not just in the short term.
Rock the Vote "tracks intensely" the 6 million people registered since organization was founded more than two decades ago, she said.
"We've found that if they registered to vote with us, they're much more likely to turn out [on Election Day]," she said, because Rock the Vote shepherds new voters to find their precincts and tells them what to take. In short, "we demystify the process," she said.
Once new voters cast ballots "they tend to keep voting," she said. By reaching eligible voters early and getting them to the polls "we're creating a generation of voters in our country, which we think makes our democracy stronger."
One more thing.
"We do know partisanship is really stable," Smith said, explaining if new voters vote for the same party several times "they tend to vote with that party for life. There's a real incentive. ... But you have to go out there and get them."
Smith, who founded and directed the non-partisan Young Voter Strategies before taking over the helm of Rock the Vote, noted President Reagan won the youth vote that now is "the heart of the Republican Party."
Rock the Vote was by artists and musicians "who reach millions of young people every day and wanted to do something to give back to their young audience," Smith said.
The artists wanted to pass on the message that voting matters but "you need to use your voice and be part of the process," she said. "It really is about self-expression that ties into the work these artists do every day."
"They use their voice to encourage others to use their own."
The effort, while rewarding, can be frustrating. Smith said volunteers visiting campuses are greeted by hundreds of students asking to register.
"Why is the onus on non-profit groups like us?" she said, instead of developing a more long-term solution for the 21st century voter.
"We run Rock the Vote because it's needed, but we'd love to see the day when we're not needed any more," Smith said.
To help institutionalize the importance of voter registration and voting, Rock the Vote has developed a civic education program that can be used in high schools. The non-profit also is working in several states to bring about online voter registration and same-day voter registration into practice, she said.
"We have a voting system set up for voters in 19th century," she said. "We have to ask what is it we can do to meet needs of a very mobile generation that is more familiar with Facebook and mobile phones than the horse and carriage."