How Rock the Vote Survived the ‘90s and Grew Up

These days, the 24-year-old youth-engagement organization is capitalizing on a changed media landscape—and Lil Jon—to send its message.

Rapper Lil Jon urges young people to get to the polls in Rock the Vote's latest get-out-the-vote video.
National Journal
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Rebecca Nelson
Oct. 10, 2014, 7:37 a.m.

Twenty-four years ago, Madonna swathed her linger­ie-clad body in an Amer­ic­an flag and rapped to view­ers, “If you don’t vote, you’re gonna get a spank­ing.”

Des­pite the ad­mon­i­tion in the 60-second PSA, or per­haps fueled by it, just 26 per­cent of 18-to-29-year-olds voted in 1990. Things haven’t changed much since: In the last midterm elec­tions, in 2010, that rate was only 24 per­cent, com­pared with 41 per­cent of all eli­gible voters.

Rock the Vote, the youth-en­gage­ment or­gan­iz­a­tion be­hind the con­tro­ver­sial Madonna ad, has been work­ing to alert young people about elec­tions and get them ex­cited about vot­ing ever since. Strik­ing just the right note of sin­cer­ity and cul­tur­al rel­ev­ance without pan­der­ing to young voters is tricky—see the Col­lege Re­pub­lic­ans’ wed­ding dress-themed videos for GOP gubernat­ori­al can­did­ates, “Say Yes to the Can­did­ate,” for the most re­cent tone-deaf ex­ample, though there are many more.

In its latest elec­tion-aware­ness gam­bit, Rock the Vote kept with the rap theme that’s worked for more than two dec­ades. Re­leased Tues­day on You­Tube, its mu­sic video fea­tures rap­per Lil Jon at a polling place crowded with hip­ster celebrit­ies all dan­cing to “Turn Out for What”—a play on the rap­per’s re­cent an­them “Turn Down for What.” The get-out-the-vote re­mix has all the trap­pings of a pop-cul­ture smash: Fred Armis­en do­ing awk­ward dance moves, a nod to weed leg­al­iz­a­tion, even a pants-less Lena Dun­ham.

Rock the Vote’s team tends to skew mil­len­ni­al, which helps the group avoid schmaltz or down­right pan­der­ing in its ad cam­paigns. That in­cludes 30-year-old Pres­id­ent Ash­ley Spillane, who told Na­tion­al Journ­al that her cowork­ers’ di­versity with­in their gen­er­a­tion makes it easi­er to tap in­to pop-cul­ture trends.

Their celebrity con­nec­tions can’t hurt, either. Audrey Gel­man, Rock the Vote’s na­tion­al spokes­wo­man, hap­pens to be friends with Girls cre­at­or and star Lena Dun­ham, and oc­ca­sion­ally guest stars on the HBO hit. Though it doesn’t take a lot of ca­jol­ing for the me­dia-friendly Dun­ham to take off her pants on cam­era, a staff with fam­ous friends makes a dif­fer­ence.

Pop-cul­ture spin-offs are more au­then­t­ic when they’re a cre­at­ive col­lab­or­a­tion with the artist rather than a brazen ap­pro­pri­ation, Spillane said. In the group’s latest video, Lil Jon him­self sings the re­writ­ten chor­us and stands fully be­hind the get-out-the-vote mes­sage (and in a rev­el­a­tion that’s shock­ing to ex­actly no one, tells the cam­era he’s turn­ing out for marijuana leg­al­iz­a­tion).

“It was a bunch of really great, re­spec­ted people com­ing to­geth­er simply for the fact that they wanted to help pro­mote vot­ing,” Spillane told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “And to say, ‘We all have dif­fer­ent is­sues that we care about. And you don’t have to care about the same things I care about, but if you want to have your voice heard on the is­sues you do care about, you have to vote.’ “

Lack of aware­ness among young people about the midterm elec­tions is a big hurdle for the or­gan­iz­a­tion. So much pri­or­ity gets placed on pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, Spillane said, that at­ten­tion wanes in the in­ter­im years. To com­bat that, Rock the Vote goes to where the young people are. In the 1990s and 2000s, that meant bring­ing the get-out-the-vote mes­sage to their liv­ing rooms through Madonna, Ig­gy Pop, and Ozzy Os­bourne on MTV. While tele­vi­sion and celebrit­ies are still part of the equa­tion, they now rely more heav­ily on so­cial me­dia, and con­tent that can eas­ily be shared on those plat­forms, such as the Lil Jon video.

Over the 24 years since the Madonna PSA, Rock the Vote’s na­tion­al de­but, the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s has had hits and misses. It spear­headed pas­sage of the 1993 Na­tion­al Voter Re­gis­tra­tion Act, a law that al­lows people to re­gister to vote when they ap­ply for or re­new their driver’s li­cense. And in the past 10 years, it has pushed for on­line voter re­gis­tra­tion, of­fer­ing a simple form for people to fill out on its web­site.

But then there was 2004’s Vote or Die cam­paign, which spot­lighted Par­is Hilton put­ting “That’s Hot” on hi­atus in fa­vor of the get-out-the-vote mes­sage. Des­pite her in­volve­ment in the cam­paign, it turned out the way­ward heir­ess wasn’t even re­gistered.

That elec­tion was also a let­down in young voter turnout: 18-to 29-year-olds made up the same per­cent­age of the over­all vote as they had four years earli­er. Young voters tar­geted spe­cific­ally by Rock the Vote ads, though, had a 2.7 per­cent high­er turnout.

Along with voter re­gis­tra­tion, Spillane said, turnout is a cru­cial meas­ure­ment of Rock the Vote’s ef­forts, a straight­for­ward ana­lys­is of wheth­er its work is suc­ceed­ing. Bey­ond that, though, it’s dif­fi­cult to cal­cu­late wheth­er young people “care like crazy“—the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s midterm ad cam­paign—enough that the mes­sage sticks with them past Novem­ber. Yes, this elec­tion mat­ters, but so does the next one, and the one after that.

“If you want to have your voice heard on any­thing in this coun­try, you have to show up to vote,” Spillane told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “It’s not enough to share an art­icle on Face­book. It’s not enough to com­plain about the way things are. If you’re not happy with the way things are, or, if you want to keep things the way they are, you have to show up. And if you don’t show up and par­ti­cip­ate, someone else will speak for you.”

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