Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Speaking youth to power: The League of Young Voters heads to the State House

Published in the Portland Phoenix

A hip-hop artist will perform in the halls of the State House on April 4. Perhaps that’s all that needs to be said to explain what lawmakers will experience when the League of Young Voters heads to Augusta to receive the traditionally staid honors with which state government rewards public-interest achievements.

Yes, the League is getting their very own day at the State House — a building League state director Justin Alfond regularly refers to as “our house” — including a proclamation from the governor and laudatory resolutions passed by the House and the Senate. It’s the sort of honor that Alfond and his fellow Leaguers seriously considered before deciding to accept — weighing whether it would be too legit, too mainstream, just too downright stuffy to mean much to a group of civic-minded 20-somethings and 30-somethings who really just want political power for themselves.

The group, formed in early 2004 (just in time to really hit its stride in the ’06 election), is a hybrid political-action group. They mix national political idealism with local activism — taking people who are upset at the direction the country is going and turning their energy to making reforms at the local- and state-government levels. They combine grassroots-style door-to-door campaigning (just like old-time politicians) with software that tracks who reads their e-mail messages and Web postings (just like multinational marketing companies). They get young people out for an evening of hip-hop, spoken-word acts, and art exhibits, and mix in some politics to produce what may be the truest representation of a “political party.” And they cross traditional lines between what activists call “education” (teaching people about the democratic process and informing voters about candidates) and outright advocacy (picking issues behind which to throw their youthful backing).

What the League learns here, and in five other pioneer League states (California, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), will be applied nationally in the coming years, says national organizing and training director Rob “Biko” Baker. The League is working toward a national political takeover, saying on its Web site, “We want a progressive governing majority in our lifetime.”

Data mining
The League’s ability to develop that depends in part on their capacity to motivate people to participate, often using art or music to draw people in.

The Portland League has fit in very well with the city’s hip-hop scene, says SayLove, a hip-hop artist who helps to organize League events. “Hip-hop has always been a social-political movement,” she says, noting its beginnings in efforts to divert inner-city young people from gangs and into more productive, creative activities.

“You really have to find a unique way of grabbing someone’s attention,” says 29-year-old Portland city councilor Dave Marshall. He used his paintings to great effect in his own election bid, setting up a display in Monument Square with both art and campaign information, attracting people with his art, and then engaging them in a political discussion.

But the real muscle behind League efforts is provided by a technology-driven campaign that allows grassroots activity to be measured, quantified, trialed, and refined over time.

As progressive political organizations strive to measure their effectiveness (useful for getting grants from foundations, which are increasingly looking for detailed results of funded projects), they are having to find ways to differentiate themselves from spam e-mails, from the deluge of text messages and cell-phone voicemails, from unsolicited MySpace messages, and from any number of other intrusions attempting to grab young people’s attention. The League is no exception, and indeed is leading the effort in Maine politics.

The systems they use are similar to those commonly applied in corporate public-relations campaigns, which can determine how many people receive an e-mail message, how many actually read it, how many of them follow a link in that message, and how people move around an organization’s Web site.

The measurements aren’t static. With each new e-mail message, each new posting on the Web site, each tweak of a message or page’s design, the results change, letting League organizers constantly fine-tune not only their messages, but also the messages’ presentation, to get maximum attention from as large a group of people as possible.

One recent e-mail, for example, asked in its subject line, if readers were “down with OPP?” — both a reference to League pet project Opportunity Maine (a student-loan-payment tax-credit initiative) and to a 1991 rap song by Naughty By Nature whose refrain asks whether a listener is willing to cheat on his or her lover. The tone and brief content of that message put off Jeff Ferland, a 22-year-old who ran for the Maine House as a Republican last year but ended up withdrawing from the race and endorsing a Green Independent opponent. (Ferland says he may run again, but most likely as a Green.) He says messages like that make it “hard to take them seriously.”

But while it was an honest attempt to convey information to League members, it was really just another trial balloon — if not enough people read it or responded to it, the League will adapt, again.

They are missing a key piece of information, though, one that has an important bearing on the League’s grip on politicians’ attention. Julie Flynn, deputy secretary of state for elections, says there is now no convenient way to gather demographic data on new-voter registrations or to determine the demographic makeup of voters (such as their ages) under the state’s long-held system of election record-keeping. A new statewide computerized system that is “80 percent complete” will allow that to happen, because it will capture voter participation in the same database that will include a voter’s birth date. The Portland city clerk’s office doesn’t track voter ages, either. So the League is left with anecdotal data to make a guess at how many more young people have signed up to vote, and how many actually went to the polls.

Even without that data, League efforts are getting broad notice. US representative Tom Allen says the League is “an increasingly important voice for younger voters,” who, he points out, are bearing the brunt of casualties in Iraq, are the least likely to have health insurance, are struggling to pay for higher education, will pay for most of the massive national debt now being incurred, and have “the most to lose” as global warming becomes more severe.

Governor John Baldacci, who was 23 when he first was elected to the Bangor City Council, talks about his own efforts to bring young people into government — including working closely with student interns and encouraging young people to talk about Maine’s future — as a way of saying the League’s efforts are important.

Councilor Marshall, who represents “the youngest district in the city,” the West End, acknowledges the support he had from the League and from young voters generally, in defeating two older candidates.

When League candidates win, “there’s sort of an expectation of reciprocity,” he says. Indeed, Marshall says he will nominate League communications director Brian Hiatt to serve on the city’s formula-business task force. It goes both ways: Marshall says if he ends up needing a petition drive to get a citywide vote on whether to have a directly elected mayor (an idea that has League backing), he would look to the League for manpower to gather signatures. (The League has a couple hundred active volunteers in Maine, according to Baker, the national organizing director.)

Marshall shouldn’t count too definitively on their support, though it’s likely to arrive if needed. Alfond notes that the League’s method of decision-making is largely by committee, whether by an 11-person steering committee (which includes staff and community volunteers) or by a vote of the active members (those who spend eight hours or more with the League over the course of a year). So if enough of them don’t like the idea, Marshall will be on his own.

Ferland, the former Republican, says that committee-style approach results in too little coherence for the group overall. As an example, he cites the League’s opposition to TABOR, rather than “why what issue came up.” Because the complaint was that “people won’t get aid from the state anymore,” the League missed the larger point, Ferland says, that “people are having trouble because the state isn’t functioning.”

But that’s part of the point for the League — making sure that what they’re doing is what actually interests people, even if it doesn’t always fit into a predetermined plan. And what happens next isn’t clear, even for League leaders.

More young people, like Marshall and others at the city level, may continue to get involved: Maine House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, who first won election at age 25 and is now 30, observes that several legislative leaders are younger people — like Jeremy Fischer (D-Presque Isle), who is the House chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and fellow Appropriations member Emily Cain (D-Orono), who are both 27. House Minority Leader Josh Tardy (R-Newport) squeaks into the “young” category, too, at 38.

And while Alfond correctly notes the general prevalence of left-leaning votes among people under 30, Maine House Speaker Glenn Cummings (D-Portland) says his research showed that people under 18 are more conservative than their slightly-older peers, except in the area of environmentalism. He says he used that information to convince wary Republican legislators to allow 17-year-olds to vote in Maine primary elections, if they’ll turn 18 before the November general election date.

What will happen in Augusta on April 4? Alfond is planning to have hip-hop and spoken-word artists perform, to display visual art created by young people, and will bring “youth culture” to the halls of power. He smiles when asked how he thinks lawmakers will react, and hedges: “I think it’s going to be quite different.”

Portland Democratic representative Anne Haskell, who made the initial request for League Day at the State House because of the League’s efforts to get involved in politics, laughs, “I bet it’s going to be real interesting.”

Baldacci hopes that his peers — and those lawmakers older than his 52 years — will “realize that they have as much to gain, if not more, from younger people” than vice-versa. (He also notes “there will be a lot more rhythm than there is otherwise” in the State House.)

Pingree thinks the reception will be warm. “Older people in Maine love having young people get involved,” she says. Many of them are still serving in part because no one else has been willing. She sees “a real interest — almost desperation” among older Maine leaders to turn over the reins to younger people.

And those younger people may, 30-odd years from now, be in the same position. Haskell makes an analogy between recreation and politics — some things, when you start them early enough, become “lifetime sports.”