DebateChats 2000: William Baldwin on the Youth Vote

Rock The Vote is celebrating its tenth anniversary of mobilizing young people to get involved in the political process. Why aren't more young Americans getting out to the polls? What can be done to make political disengagement a thing of the past? Actor and Rock The Vote board member Billy Baldwin joined us today in a live chat. Also joining the chat: Rock The Vote's Creative Director and Chief Strategist Alison Byrne Fields. Look below for a transcript of the chat.

ABCNEWS’ Jim Sciutto at 2:10pm ET

We're joined now by actor William Baldwin, President of the Creative Coalition and board member of Rock The Vote, an organization working to get young people more involved in the political process. We're also joined by Alison Byrne Fields, Chief Strategist for Rock the Vote. The topic today is youth voter apathy. According to the Federal Election Commission, just 32 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds voted in the 1996 presidential election, fewer even than the paltry 50% of the general population that bothers to vote. Rock The Vote is trying to change that by leading voter registration drives. It aims to register several hundred thousand new, young voters by election day. Thank you both for being here.

William, why aren't young voters interested?

William Baldwin at 2:10pm ET

Well, for a number of reasons. Disillusionment, disenfranchisement, apathy, lack of maturity. They haven't evolved in their lives to a point where they can recognize the significance and the responsibility and the duty of participating in democracy through different ways. Obviously the clearest example would be through voting, but also social and political advocacy and general awareness, knowing world affairs, knowing what's going on in your community and state, nationally and globally, and having some awareness of what's going on around you.

ABCNEWS’ Jim Sciutto Jim Sciutto at 2:14pm ET

What I find interesting is that young people are involved in community service. Eighty percent of high schools reportedly have students involved in community service. Why will young people do community service but not vote?

William Baldwin at 2:15pm ET

There is that trend. I know there was a new Harvard study that showed that public service is on the rise but political advocacy remains steady and low for the 18 to 25-year-old demographic. Which is interesting, and I think it's telling, that there are a lot of young people who are interested in giving something back and being of service through charity and philanthropy and other forms of public service that don't relate to political advocacy. Which is terrific, by the way, I think, and it would be even better if we can get that to translate into the political arena. I think comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation would go a long way toward restoring the trust amongst the electorate, because there definitely is the perception of — you know, there is no more "one man, one vote." What fuels a lot of the disenfranchisement or apathy is a bunch of "what do they have in common with me? It's no more one man, one vote, it's these big corporate fat cats and special interests, and they have all the access and they have all they power, and I have none. So what difference can my voice make and how can I compete with all the big corporations?"

Jim from at 2:15pm ET

Part of the problem is that we're stuck in a two-party system that gives younger voters little choice. It's moved from "vote for who you like the most" to "vote for who you dislike the least". What can we do to get the Democrats and Republicans to play nice with the other children (i.e. in debates)? Are they afraid?

William Baldwin at 2:17pm ET

A third party isn't born over night. It can take generations before they can become competitive. Certainly there is more that the political process can do to level the playing field and create a more equitable distribution of opportunity for the third party. But, like I said, that's certainly not going to happen over night. What we're witnessing now is the emergence of a third party and a potential three-party system in America, dating back to Ross Perot. It's Ross Perot who really got Clinton elected, because I think he took more of a percentage of voters away from Bush in 1996. There is a third party emerging; it's having a significant impact. It's not competing on the same level as the other two parties yet, but I think it would be good for the parties and good for the country.

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:19pm ET

There was actually a survey that was done by Newsweek that said that 50 percent of young people identify themselves as independent voters, and sixty-four percent of them were interested in having a viable third party. So I think that the inclusion of a viable third party, and as William said, campaign finance reform — these things are both of interest to young people. Campaign finance reform would indicate that the system is looking at itself critically and would indicate change in the system. So the McCain-Feingold bill would indicate that even Washington is looking at itself critically. With a third party, it's an introduction of alternative voices.

ABCNEWS’ Jim Sciutto at 2:20pm ET

Alison, what is Rock The Vote doing to get young people registered?

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:22pm ET

We have spent a lot of our energy, particularly in 2000, trying to help young people to recognize the issues that are being decided in this election. Because a lot of what we see is that young people, because they don't see their issues being discussed, think that the election has nothing to do with them. So for example we're premiering a series of spots on MTV this month that spotlights potential questions that young people would ask the candidates if they were given the opportunity. There are questions about how they will decide who will be the Supreme Court justices, questions about racial profiling, questions about the increase in spending for prisons versus spending on education, questions about campaign finance reform, and questions about the hypocrisy of legislation which takes away funding for higher education if a young person is busted for drugs, whereas candidates have admitted to using drugs, and elected officials have admitted to it, but have suggested that it was a youthful indiscretion.

ABCNEWS’ Jim Sciutto at 2:23pm ET

William and Alison, is there any sign that politicians care about the youth vote?

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:24pm ET

I think they care, definitely. They recognize that young people, in terms of numbers, do make up a great portion of the population. But they aren't investing the level of resources that they invest in, for example, the AARP voter, the retired or older voter, because they don't feel that they can rely on young people to turn out at the polls. Strategically, young people aren't reliable. So, no, they're not doing all they can.

ABCNEWS’ Jim Sciutto at 2:24pm ET

William, any thoughts?

William Baldwin at 2:26pm ET

Clearly, I think they obviously care. I think all politicians want the 18-25 demographic to embrace democracy and participate through voting. I think it has a tendency to make Republicans more nervous than Democrats, because historically that demographic has voted more in favor of the Democratic Party. I remember when Patrick Lippert was executive director of Rock the Vote; I worked with him on trying to pass the "Motor-Voter" legislation, and there was much more resistance on the Republican side of the aisle, because if you made registration and voter participation more accessible and more convenient for the 18-25 demographic, it was going to hurt the Republicans at the polls more than Democrats. So, publicly, they're both going to acknowledge they want young people to participate in this great experiment. But privately, I think there's more interest on the Democratic side of the aisle.

ABCNEWS’ Jim Sciutto at 2:27pm ET

A recent ABC News poll showed that 18 to 30-year-olds went 50 percent for Bush and 47 percent for Gore. Among all voters it was 47 to 47. Does that surprise you at all?

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:27pm ET

No. In terms of 18 to 24 year-olds, on a very broad generalization, they are potentially more socially liberal, but they are fiscally conservative.

William Baldwin at 2:27pm ET

Is that in the last five years, that trend to be more socially liberal but more fiscally conservative? That sounds new to me.

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:27pm ET

Yes. Since I've been here for two years, it's sort of a development.

William Baldwin at 2:28pm ET

That's interesting to me. My experience, with my generation, has been that a lot of 18 to 25 year-olds are so much more socially progressive that they would identify themselves more with the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party. And then when they get taxed on their first paycheck, there's a marked tendency to drop off the Democratic Party rolls.

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:29pm ET

There was a survey that was done by Project Vote Smart that said that the number one concern for the generation was jobs, wages, and the economy. They have a lower median income and they are being told that Social Security will not exist for them, so financially they are concerned. And they are being told that their generation is making millions, so they think everybody else but them is doing well.

IanJ at 2:30pm ET

Do you believe that somewhat less "serious" issues, such as Napster or the recent hearings on violence in entertainment, could potentially perk youth interest in the political process?

William Baldwin at 2:31pm ET

I don't think that intellectual property issues and violence in media are less serious issues. I guess it's less serious from a relative standpoint, but I find it to be an important issue, quite frankly. But certain issues are more tailored toward certain demographics. If it were proposed on the House floor that they raise the voting age like they did the drinking age from 18 to 21, there would be more attention than ever before.

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:31pm ET

And significantly, censorship of music was what Rock the Vote started on. That was the issue that we felt young people could be mobilized to get out and vote around.

NJK from at 2:33pm ET

Billy, what do you think about Gore's recent criticisms of Hollywood?

William Baldwin at 2:37pm ET

I do a lot of work with the Creative Coalition in this area. In fact, I've facilitated closed-door meetings with Senator Brownback, Senator Lieberman, and Bill Bennett, the sponsors of the Appeal to Hollywood, and leaders in the arts and entertainment industry. Also, Bennett and Lieberman have sat on public policy forums that the Creative Coalition has produced in New York and Washington. And I don't have a problem with it at all, because I think they're right. There are some things that I don't agree with them on. Lieberman has said publicly and has said to me that it is not a First Amendment argument — by no stretch of the imagination is the federal government interested in censoring the entertainment industry — and I support that. I in no way, shape or form want this to become a First Amendment issue. I think a lot of violent programming is justified; it's a viable form of entertainment, and people have the right to see it. At the same time, if you feed a 7-year-old boy a steady diet of inappropriate sexual and violent content, from the Internet, video games, television, film, and the recording industry, you cannot convince me that it's not having an effect. I don't believe that if a 15-year-old sees "The Basketball Diaries," that that is going to be the direct cause for why he goes to the classroom and kills one of his classmates. But I do think in terms of stimulating or desensitizing there is now mounting evidence that indicates that it is having some sort of effect. But when it comes directly to the violence, I think that there are other variables, like parenting, socioeconomics, drug and alcohol abuse and accessibility to handguns, that play not only a more significant role, but play a more direct role. When I talk to elected officials in Washington, and leaders in the entertainment industry, a lot of them agree, and understand that it's having an effect and that something needs to be done, and that there's a role for the entertainment industry to play; they just don't want censorship or government regulation, and that brings you to a whole host of other issues. They can improve the rating system and they can enforce the rating system. There's talk in the Creative Coalition where they would teach Media Literacy training in the New York City public schools, to teach children to be more sophisticated viewers of the media. I'm not talking about showing a 7-year-old boy "Natural Born Killers;" I'm talking about showing him the cartoons, the six-o'clock news that he sees and the prime-time that he sees, because those programs have a lot of content that is deemed appropriate for children, and it would be designed to teach children, parents and educators how to process the media in a more sophisticated and healthful way.

ABCNEWS’ Jim Sciutto at 2:40pm ET

Getting back to the topic of youth voter apathy, Alison and I talked earlier about how the voter registration drive is going. You said it's a little slower than previous years. Why is that?

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:41pm ET

Hmm. I think that young people are — again, it's that young people do not see the act of voting as an act which will help them to accomplish their goals. We were talking earlier about the increase in community service among the youngest generation, and with those numbers, when you ask young people why it is that they are volunteering, serving soup in soup kitchens, they say that they get a sense of gratification, that they see results occur. So I think that young people just are not able to see the results of voting, and they want to.

Heather from at 2:42pm ET

Do either of the speakers want to comment on what can be done to engage young people before they reach voting age?

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:45pm ET

We launched a program a couple of years ago that we call "Rock the Vote Every Day," with the idea being that we wanted to divert some of the attention from the isolated act of voting, and look at voting as being one of a set of actions that young people can take. And so that campaign focused on true stories of young people around the country who were identifying issues in their community that needed to be addressed. So we were definitely targeting young people under the age of 18. In addition, young people themselves are calling for better civic education in high school, even the very basic information about how and where to register, where to vote — very basic information that they don't feel they're getting through schools. And finally there are programs such as Kids Voting USA, which enable parents to model the act of voting for young people by setting up polls for kids under the age of 18 to go with their parents to vote on Election Day and do sort of a mock vote. Because the act of voting is something that is passed on. Young people are more likely to vote if their parents are voting.

58177H from at 2:45pm ET

Do you think it's more important to get young people involved in local or national politics?

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:46pm ET

Well, in terms of the idea of immediate gratification, it's easier to illustrate that, for young people with local elections. There was a story that we tell about a group of young people in Kentucky that wanted to have a teen center built, and there was an upcoming city council election. They realized that one of the candidates was supportive of the idea of a teen center, and so they decided to actively campaign for this man, going out in the streets, registering voters, knocking on doors. He was elected, and they got their teen center. So there was that sense of cause and effect more easily demonstrated.

William Baldwin at 2:47pm ET

I think that's precisely what needs to be demonstrated for the 18 to 25 demographic. You have to show them how voting and how participating in the political process affects their everyday life; how there can be a cause and effect; how there can be tangible results from their participation.

William Baldwin at 2:52pm ET

Well, that leads back to the opening with disillusionment and disenfranchisement. It doesn't only have to apply to the corporate fat cats and the bigwigs and the rich and powerful. You're right, the partisan nature and the gridlock that occurs on the Hill is a big turnoff for voters. And yet elected officials are quite aware of that, and they — they don't do everything in their power, they're conscious of it and they try to avoid it, but invariably they wind up tripping over themselves and cannibalizing themselves in the red tape and in the bureaucracy. I think the original intentions of the Founding Fathers to set up a system of checks and balances between the branches and between the parties, was a timeless concept and should in fact work today. But I also don't think that the Founding Fathers could anticipate a lot of the, again, red tape and bureaucracy and partisan in-fighting. But you know, I wasn't around 150 years ago, and from what I'm told this has gone on from the beginning of time. The agenda moves forward very incrementally. You have to compromise and you have to negotiate. We live in an age now where people are used to seeing more dramatic results more quickly, through technology, and the political process has not been able to keep pace. Nor should it. I understand what you're talking about. There definitely is, currently, this do-nothing Congress that can't sort of — it's sort of rudderless, it can't navigate. I think that the Lewinsky trial had a lot to do with that, and I think that with the turnover in the House, in the Senate, and in the White House, we can put the Lewinsky trial behind us, and see if a new era of cooperation emerges.

William Baldwin at 2:53pm ET

I think to a large degree that the last two congressional cycles were caught in this holding pattern. I would largely attribute that to the Lewinsky scandal. And I think as a result of that — I've heard "gridlock" since I was in high school civics class, but it was at a heightened level because of Lewinsky, and I think that hopefully that will change in the next Congress.

ABCNEWS’ Jim Sciutto at 2:54pm ET

How optimistic are you that you can significantly raise the percentage of young people who care and are willing to vote?

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:54pm ET

I think that the percentage that care is not reflected in the percentage that are voting. I think that's very important to point out. They're demonstrating their caring and concern through different forms of political action. I'm not optimistic about voter turnout, I'm optimistic that young people care about their lives and their futures.

William Baldwin at 2:57pm ET

I think Alison's answer was very eloquent and accurate. I think that because there is such a higher percentage of those who care than those who participate, the very essence of that suggests that there is hope and optimism for the future. Again, new technologies will make it more accessible and more convenient for people to participate, even though I wouldn't want to have it happen for those reasons, or rely on those new technologies for those reasons. I also think the political climate is coming so much so to the center that the political appetite is in decline. We haven't had a reason for — there hasn't been sort of a bellweather event to rally the youth demographic around a political cause or a political movement in quite some time. It's not required or essential that we have another Vietnam or cultural revolution, but it would be nice to have an opportunity for young people to rally around and get motivated.

ABCNEWS’ Jim Sciutto at 2:58pm ET

You mention new technologies. In a couple of local elections around the country there has been online registration and even online voting. We're already seeing online campaigning. How about online voting?

Alison Byrne Fields at 2:58pm ET

It's an inevitability. I think that young people in particular embrace the idea. We will have to address the digital divide issue, because those of us who have greater access to the Internet are also those who are more inclined to vote.

ABCNEWS’ Jim Sciutto at 3:01pm ET

Thank you both for joining us today.