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Youth Activist Groups Target Voter Turnout

Rock the Vote (search ), the music industry-sponsored effort to get young Americans to the polls on Election Day, may be the best-known group to dip its toes into the pool of voter mobilization, but it is not the only organization vying to attract youth interest in politics.

Among the better-known organizations grabbing the attention of young people are World Wrestling Entertainment's Smackdown Your Vote (search), Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (search) and Declare Yourself (search ), a new youth mobilization effort launched by television sitcom pioneer Norman Lear, who has pledged to raise $27 million for the cause.

“We endorse voting, plain and simple,” said Rock the Vote President Jehmu Greene. “It’s about voting and being registered to vote, not how you vote.”

The youth vote, which is considered 18- to 30-year-olds and includes 30 million people, accounted for less than 4 percent of the entire voting population in 2000. Supporters of voter mobilization efforts say energizing the youth will help them make a habit of civic engagement. 

But some observers say they are concerned that youth voter mobilization efforts are too oriented toward liberal policies, and suggest that groups like Rock the Vote aim to indoctrinate young people into becoming liberal-minded thinkers.

“If you look at their Web site, it’s a clearinghouse for every left-wing liberal group out there,” said Tom Ivancie, executive director of America’s Future Foundation (search ), a Washington, D.C., organization focused on young libertarians and conservatives.

Chris Morris, a researcher for the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C., said Rock the Vote has Democrat written all over it — which would be fine if the group didn’t claim tax-exempt non-profit status, and purport only to get young people to vote.

“At least be honest about your intentions,” he said. “It’s propaganda at its finest.”

Founded in 1990 to reach out to younger voters using pop culture-connected outreach, Rock the Vote includes on its advisory board actor Billy Baldwin and rock musician Michael Stipe, who recently announced he is sponsoring, along with actress and liberal activist Janeane Garofalo (search ), a national contest for the best anti-President Bush music video.

The organization's Web site also features links to openly partisan groups like MoveOn.org, which recently said it would raise millions of dollars to defeat Bush in 2004, and "Chicks Rock Chicks Vote," a new organization founded by The Dixie Chicks, whose lead singer Natalie Maines (search) was roundly criticized for making anti-Bush statements. The "Chicks" site links to a number of pro-choice, liberal groups like Feminist Majority and the White House Project (search ).

Greene said the organization is frequently accused of taking a liberal stand, but it is strictly non-partisan. The Republican National Committee also links to the Rock the Vote Web site, and the group has often worked with high-profile Republicans on various voter mobilization efforts, she said.

Greene added that her group will work with any organization — left or right — that wants to help get young people registered to vote.

Some political observers dismiss complaints that youth-oriented voter mobilization groups are agenda-driven. Rashad Robinson, an analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy (search ), said efforts aimed at young people frequently attempt to connect to potential voters by offering up their favorite pop culture, many of whom are left-of-center.

But, he added, "This doesn’t mean that the young people are going to run out and vote Democrat. I just think it means that they’re trying to connect with young people ... They're doing the work that needs to be done.”

Kristen Richardson, campus program manager for the Independent Women's Forum (search ), a conservative-minded think tank in Washington, D.C., agreed.

“They are liberal and they are left-leaning, and maybe they have a hidden agenda, but I don’t think any get-out-the-vote effort can be that bad,” Richardson said. “There are conservative efforts as well. We will take what we can get.”

Lear's group, Declare Yourself, has also been accused of having a liberal bend, in part because its chief sponsor has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration and has donated more than $200,000 to the Democratic Party since 2000. Lear also founded People for the American Way, which has supported almost every high-profile fight against Republican judicial nominees since the Robert Bork Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1987.

But a Declare Yourself spokesman said the group is non-partisan, and has major sponsorship from organizations like the National Secretaries of State and the United Postal Service.

“This is not a Democratic initiative,” the spokesman said. "We may, in fact, be driving young voters to re-electing the president, but at the end of the day more voters is a good thing.”

Recent surveys show that many teens are heading in a more conservative direction than conventional wisdom would indicate, undermining complaints that young voters automatically vote for liberal candidates. 

Two polls by the Gallup Organization and the University of California at Berkeley revealed that teenagers are more liberal than adults on the environment, same-sex marriage and affirmative action, but are decidedly more conservative on abortion rights and public practice of religion.

One pollster said the results may be a telling indicator for the future.

"They're only 20 percent of the populace but they're 100 percent of the future, and what's going on now in their minds and hearts and souls is actually going to be played out, of course, in the decades ahead," said Gallup Organization co-chairman George Gallup Jr.

Recent polls by Harvard University and CNN/Gallup Poll also have shown that more than 60 percent of college students say President Bush is doing a good job.

“I think while liberals have taken [college students] for granted, students are taking a closer look at the leadership of George Bush,” said Eric Hoplin, chairman of the College Republicans.

The National College Republicans (search ) have been organizing voter registration efforts, in many cases, going door-to-door to encourage college students not only to vote, but to vote Republican. Hoplin said liberal organizations don't realize that many conservative kindred spirits are meeting up on college campuses.

The New Voters Project (search ), a campaign sponsored by State Public Interest Research Groups (search) and George Washington University, is reportedly gearing up to register and turn out voters in six states — Wisconsin, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa and Oregon — five of which the winner in 2000 was decided by less than 4 percent.

Organizers of the project, which is supported by Rock the Vote, Smackdown Your Vote, Campus Compact and Campaign for Young Voters — a project of the nonpartisan Council for Excellence in Government, say their goal is to register 265,000 18- to 24-year-olds, one-third of whom will not be students, in order to increase youth voter turnout by 5 percent.

"We have the resources, the right people and the research to challenge the cycle of neglect that exists between young people and politicians,” said Wendy Wendlandt, Political Director for the State PIRGs, who added the project will cost $9 million.

Critics accuse the group of leaning left, particularly because of the long relationship between PIRG and liberal icon Ralph Nader (search ). But supporters of the group, which includes former President Gerald Ford and former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., say they are targeting competitive states not because of a political agenda, but because competition is more likely to fuel participation.

Fox News' Anita Vogel contributed to this report.