Rock the Vote Interview
Better Propaganda Editor Terbo Ted talks to Rock the Vote President Jehmu Greene.
Better Propaganda: Hi, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the mission statement of Rock The Vote.
Jehmu Greene: Rock the Vote is the nation's leading organization dedicated to empowering young people to participate in the political process, giving them the information, resources and access to voter participation.
Better Propaganda: Is voter apathy, then, something you're combatting regularly?
JG: In 2000, there were 18 million 18-30 year olds that turned out to vote in the presidential elections, and that's a large number that people sometimes forget when they talk about youth voter apathy. There are already a significant number of young people participating in the political process, and we look to seeing a 2 million increase to get to 20 million voters in 2004. We also know that young people are extremely engaged in their communities through volunteering, and working to make a difference on a set of specific issues that they are connected to, including the environment and tutoring and mentoring and homelessness, and Rock the Vote is going to everything we can to turn that interest and engagement in making the world a better place, to turn that attention to politics and show young people how a vote can make a difference on those activities that you care about.
Better Propaganda: Rock the Vote's quite an organization: you've got a bunch of side things, like Rap the Vote for example; you've got offices on both coasts; I was wondering if you could tell me some specific success stories Rock the Vote has had.
JG: Going back over the last fourteen years since Rock the Vote was first founded to protect freedom of expression, we have worked to pass the motor voter bill, that allowed people to register to vote at government agencies, and also removed some of the barriers to voter registration for voter empowerment organizations. When the bill was passed, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, he thanked Rock the Vote for all of the efforts that we did to make that happen. We've also worked to pass the National and Community Service Trust Act, and we've been really successful in, I think engaging a large number of young people into political participation by using pop culture, by using the icons that they allow to enter their room on a daily basis, or their car on a daily basis through the radio, and of course, through television. I know that we've been successful in bringing in millions of young voters into the process, including myself. I was one person registered to vote by Rock the Vote.
Better Propaganda: Uh-huh.
JG: There are over three and a half million people around this country who have been registered to vote by Rock the Vote.
Better Propaganda: Wow.
JG: Moving on from our past successes, it's all about a new generation of voters, that, if you look at the presidential election that's in front of us, I'd say there are a lot- or most of the older generations- have already made up their mind. This country is pretty evenly divided, and the people that Rock the Vote is talking to- this new generation of voters, 18 to 30 year olds- really have the opportunity to be the deciding factor. And that's a powerful position to hold.
Better Propaganda: You guys are doing online voter registration at your website. Did Rock the Vote help pioneer that at all? When did that start happening in this country? Is that tied at all to that legislation you were talking about?
JG: Rock the Vote was the first organization to provide an online voter registration system back in 1996, and we have taken the lead again in revamping our online voter registration tool to make it easy and fun to register to vote online. But the most important thing about our online voter registration tool this year, is that it's going to be everywhere that young people are on the internet. We are not waiting for them to find rockthevote.com. We are going out to fans of artists who Rock the Vote, and putting the links to the tool on their sites. They're going to our new media partners, and old media partners, including our long-term relationship with MTV. We're seeing approximately 12,000 people register to vote a week on chooseorlose.com. We're working with BET.com, we're working with AOL, we're working with the WB. And because of this tool, and the presence it will have on the internet, it's going to be really hard for young people around the country [to] not be asked to register to vote, or have a very direct way of getting into the system, or having that system put right in front of them.
Better Propaganda: Is technically, Rock the Vote a non-partisan organization?
JG: We are a non-partisan organization, we are a non-profit organization, we work to register all young voters, we look to work with partners who are interested in bringing new voices into the political process. And one of the most important voices, which is that young person who gets the right to vote when they turn eighteen. So, I would say, over the last fourteen years, we have registered more Independents, because that's where young people see themselves.
Better Propaganda: Well, I think that in the United States, there are more registered Independents than there are registered Democrats, and there are also more registered Independents than Republicans, isn't that correct, at all age levels?
JG: Can you repeat the exact breakdown you just did, I'm sorry.
Better Propaganda: In the United States, there are more registered Independents than any other party. There are more Independents than Democrats; more Independents than Republicans, isn't that correct?
JG: I haven't seen a breakdown that I can point to that highlights that, but definitely, from a youth or a young voter perspective, we see higher numbers of identification with being an Independent, which Rock the Vote says, it's about the candidate that's going to speak to their issues.
Better Propaganda: I'd like to talk to you about legislation and tax status. You said you're a non-profit, and non-partisan. There's a lot of really complicated laws that affect political action groups and committees and all those sort of things. Where do you see yourself lined up in there, if you could explain some of that to people, I don't think everyone quite understands how strictly legalized all this stuff is.
JG: I'm going to actually ask you to repeat the question, I'm not sure...
Better Propaganda: Okay. I'd like to talk to about your tax status for example, you said you're non-partisan. And, in the United States, there's a lot of really complicated laws about political action committees and organizations and all that kind of stuff. I was just curious if you could give any background insight on the things you can and can't do with you organization, and the laws you exist in as a political group. That's stuff people don't really hear about or understand too well I think.
JG: Rock the Vote is a 501c(3) organization. There is also a 501c(4) action fund. And we use our non-profit, non-partisan 501c(3) to register voters, and educate young people on a number of issues. There are rules that are in place that guide organizations and the work that they can do as it relates to lobbying and advocacy, and it really just depends on what your specific status is. So, 501c(3)'s are guided by a certain set of rules, and c(4)'s and PACs, and 527's. But, we're primarily a 501c(3) that does issue education on the importance of political participation.
Better Propaganda: If a young voter wanted to learn more about all those laws, can you recommend a website to look to?
JG: Absolutely... I would recommend going to the Alliance for Justice (allianceforjustice.org), which is another national non-profit coalition of organizations that works to provide resources to organizations around these issues. They have a coalition of lawyers that work to provide training and information sharing on some of the issues facing non-profits as it relates to advocacy.
Better Propaganda: I'd like to ask you about the past, I know that certain- even Congress-level- people have subjected your group to ridicule- how has that gone in the past?
JG: I'm actually not aware of Rock the Vote being subjected to ridicule by members of Congress. We work with a number of elected officials, to highlight the importance of participation. We've done a number of events that we've had members from Congress, from both sides of the aisle participate in, including a 9/11 youth summit that was held in Washington, DC, and we were happy to have Adam Putnum, who at the time was the youngest elected official- youngest member of Congress. Adam, the Congressman, was from Florida, and he was a Republican, and as a keynote speaker in the summit, I think he was, well, the most inspirational person who helped talk to these young leaders from around the country about his process he had gone through, and the lessons he had learned, and how still committed he is to public service, and I think it was a really inspiring part. We've also had members from the other side talk at the youth summit, including Senator John Quinlan. We have a bus tour that will go around the country starting in early June through November. At numerous stops along the way, we'll be joined by members of Congress, both elected officials and candidates running for Congress. We look forward to continuing to put politicians in front of young people, to answer their questions and address the issues they care about.
Better Propaganda: It could be said that Rock and Roll has a fairly universal appeal, and yet, if you look at the legacy of rock music, I mean, it seems to be constantly full of leftist posing, stuff like "I Fought the Law and the Law Won." Doesn't that kind of tend to like force your group to be perceived as being on one side of the coin or the other?
JG: I think young people see Rock the Vote as a vehicle in which they are allowed to ROCK the vote, to have an impact on it, to shake things up. And we reach out to rock artists, we reach out to hip hop artists, we reach out to country artists, we reach out to artists that are interested in using their platform to empower their audience and their fans to participate in the political process.
Better Propaganda: You were talking about your electronic music outreach program with Paul Van Dyk. Can you tell us more about that?
JG: Absolutely, it is an honor to be working with Paul Van Dyk and his team to take Rock the Vote's message into a new community, and to work to organize and turnout fans of the electronic music industry. I had the chance to introduce Paul to approximately 30,000 people in Miami last week. And having his voice join Rock the Vote's is- I think- the biggest thing that we are going to do this year. Paul makes it clear to his fans that he grew up in Communist Germany, and he understands very clearly, the importance of voting and participation in democracy. And he has signed on to come with us full force for the rest of this year, to make sure that his fans understand that. We couldn't be happier to have him as a spokesperson for the electronic music outreach that we will be doing. And we also see the need to really provide a political voice for a community that is, at times, under attack, and even in some cases, in the same way that hip hop was under attack, which was, at the founding of Rock the Vote, one of the number one reasons why this organization exists today. And we're glad to be able to do that again for this new industry as well.
Better Propaganda: Speaking of electronics, we're seeing a widespread introduction of touch screen voting machines in our coming elections in this country. And theres's been a lot of controversy about the Diebold voting equipment, and there's no receipts or ballots or anything like this. I'm wondering if Rock the Vote is able to legally have a position on this, and, if so, what is it?
JG: Rock the Vote is interested in removing barriers and obstacles, and increasing access to voter registration and voting. We also understand that there is a very serious process and set of guidelines and benchmarks that need to be reached to make sure that every vote does count, and that we don't see a repeat of the 2000 elections. And as these decisions are being made around the country, through implementation of the Help America Vote Act, we are working to make sure that young people's voices are heard through these commissions, HAVA Commissions. And we will continue to make sure that there is a strong focus put on implementing technologies that will help us increase turn out. We always have as an organization, a strong commitment to "every vote does count" and the need for systems to be in place that will guarantee those efforts.
Better Propaganda: Okay. I'm curious on what you would say about the coming Republican National Convention planned at the end of August in New York City. I mean, it's no secret that a bunch of young people are organizing all kinds of organizations to participate in various degrees of direct action, which some people say is a form of democracy. Some of the stuff's probably going to get pretty out of control, from what I can see is being planned. Do you have any comments to those people that are planning to be disruptive?
JG: Specifically as it relates to the Republican convention?
Better Propaganda: There's been tons and tons of groups planning in New York City to try to disrupt that event, it's not a secret, it's pretty openly discussed right now.
JG: I'm aware that there are going to be a number of efforts in both Boston and New York, to highlight from the outside, specific sets of issues that these communities want to have addressed by the parties, and the two people who could be in the position to serve as president for the next four years. We, at Rock the Vote, we welcome political participation in the form of a vote, in the form of signing a petition, in the form of a protest, in the form of running for office. And all these things, at the end of the day, are rocking the vote. We like political engagement, and we encourage young people to engage with the candidates, the electeds, the powers that be, the media, in as many direct ways as possible.