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Naked Vote: New Era's Political Partying
Rock the Trail is a project of Rock the Vote and Wiretap
It all began when a group of young Boulder activists, who describe themselves as "disgruntled," decided they could make a difference. Combine that energy with startup capital from a non-profit foundation and you've got a recipe for a movement.
The youth of New Era Colorado (NEC) believe a new generation will usher in the nation's next great progressive era. They're helping that goal along by working to increase voter registration, civic participation and engagement among the 18 to 29-year-old Millennial Generation, in addition to forging a youth-specific legislative agenda. And they manage to do it all while having one heck of a good time.
"We [do] year-round political engagement," says Steve Fenberg, New Era's executive director. "We don't want just election cycle thinking."
Fenberg says the organization grew from a group of old student government nerds who didn't see much room for people who fit between "politically-unengaged" and the College Republicans or Young Democrats.
"They're useful for a certain crowd," says Fenberg, "but not for an average young person. We wanted to re-brand politics by young people for young people, and bridge the gap between social life and politics."
When New Era formed, they set their sights high, competing with dozens of other groups for a startup grant offered to those interested in youth outreach. NEC was one of the select three groups to become part of the coveted Go Grant Program. With the money and startup services to build a solid foundation, the organization hit the ground running.
Their pioneer venture in 2006 was to increase political youth outreach and engagement -- a key component to the turnout in the midterm elections, the primaries and caucuses, as well as the predicted high turnout in November. "Thanks to their work we're going to see the trend in increased young voter participation continue," said Youth to Power author Michael Connery over Google Chat. "[They could] potentially [swing] battleground states, and most likely have a dramatic impact on less well-known, down-ballot races where a few thousand, or few hundred votes can make the difference."
Founders of New Era were sick of candidates swooping in to the community for only a few months and bailing out after the election was over. Instead, they sought to build a group of people who would stay active on the issues that mattered to them. Ballot initiatives, legislative battles and community projects are all ways in which young people can consistently impact Colorado. New Era calls it "hands-on democracy" and it's powered by real grassroots work.
After a quick operation for the 2006 elections, New Era focused on developing a legislative agenda. At the spring session at the Colorado Capitol in 2007, two NEC interns took the lead on a bill to lower the minimum age of a candidate seeking political office. The group passed a bill in the House and Senate to change it from 25 to 21.
"That's really come full circle for us," Fenberg says. "It's an amendment to the Constitution on the ballot this November."
This kind of successful youth action was a key reason University of Colorado student Christopher Smith got involved in the organization. "As we can see in other countries," he says, "when youth are participants in their political process they can be extremely effective in bringing about positive change."
The 2007 City Council Elections in Boulder provided another opportunity for NEC to get involved. Seven of the nine council seats were up for re-election and Fenberg saw a huge opportunity for young people to impact the election. Enter the "Vote Naked" campaign.
Because it was an all-mail ballot, there were no polling places or specific dates for the election. Instead, the voter receives their ballot at their voter registration address and sends it back with their vote. Fenberg says this is particularly difficult for young voters because they tend to move around quite a bit. "The first part of [Vote Naked] was making sure everybody was registered to vote and registered under their current address."
Fenberg says the all-mail ballot provided a unique opportunity for New Era to talk about how easy it is to vote from the comfort of one's own home. "We did a cool YouTube video and had a bunch of swag that said 'Vote Naked' on it and it really caught on."
This January, New Era held a candidate forum that addressed the issues that matter most to youth. Young voters submitted YouTube videos asking questions of candidates in Colorado's Second Congressional District. New Era sifted through the videos and showed those selected on a big screen at an event where the candidates responded. No issue was off the table and Fenberg said candidates weren't sure what to expect. Young voters asked questions about a broad range of topics from health care and global warming to the legalization of marijuana.
In the lead-up to the 2008 Colorado caucuses, New Era registered over 4,000 voters. Few other organizations register voters in off years. "Right now, so many groups are doing voter registration, but after the election they'll all leave," says Fenberg. "We're pretty much the only ones out there doing it year-round and not just gearing up for a general election."
If "Vote Naked" weren't daring enough, the caucus offered an opportunity for more clever repartee from New Era. "To be honest, I don't think a lot of people knew what caucus meant," Fenberg says. "If you're not [in] a state that has a big caucus like some of the states that come early, you wouldn't even know that you had a caucus." Typically, Colorado has their caucuses much later in the calendar. Like many states, however, they changed the date to have a greater impact on presidential nominees and the state parties.
New Era wanted to ensure that people knew the event was coming up, what it meant and how they could participate. "We started a couple of campaigns," Fenberg explains. "One of them was Rock Out with Your Caucus Out that was really just an awareness [campaign] to get people to volunteer for Caucus Day, know where their site is and to get their friends there."
The final effort by New Era to ensure that voters knew about the Colorado caucus was a campaign called "The Caucus Comes Early," featuring a controversial YouTube video. "Essentially it's, um, two people kind of getting it on. It's steamy and over the top but meant to be funny," says Fenberg. "At the very end you see the girl kind of rolling her eyes and they're done. And then it says 'Beware: The Caucus Comes Early This Year.' Then it gives you information on what it means to be a caucus state, when it is and [how] you should be prepared for it."
While the ad never showed anything that would violate YouTube's terms of service, it did ruffle some feathers at the Colorado Democratic Party. Officials there asked New Era to pull the video. "Even though it was actually non-partisan," says Fenberg, "and it was very much geared towards educating people about the caucus, we still ended up taking it down."
Fenberg notes that on caucus night there were many different sites throughout the city, and one large one for the University of Colorado campus. If students lived off campus or weren't in school, it was important for people to know which site to go to. "It was chaos. We never had more than a handful of people show up before; this year we had hundreds at each site."
New Era sponsored the main university site and had treats and activities for those who attended. Fenberg said that in 2004 only nine people showed up, but this year there were over 500 people -- most of them young. "I think all nine of those people [in 2004] were homeowners who lived on the outskirts of campus. So, we had a huge increase with a lot of energy. All of our volunteers ran the caucus. They did all the sign in, counted the official ballots and reported the results to the party."
Programs like these are one of the major reasons CU student volunteer Tara Worley got involved. "It gave me a sense of community and helped me not think about things that might be stressing me out like school or whatever," she said. "My favorite part of New Era is called 'Roll Call' where we register voters on roller skates and dress crazy. It's more fun than a regular bar crawl on any other Saturday night."
Bus Bound To Rock DNC
This week, during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, New Era Colorado takes to the road on their first chartered voter bus. In an email to supporters, Steve Fenberg said they will fill the bus with volunteer riders, go to a swing district in Colorado and talk to thousands of voters. Fenberg believes it's these kinds of grassroots efforts that can have more of an impact on Colorado elections than any TV ad or mailing. "We're bringing back people-to-people politics one bus trip at a time. And then we throw a post-trip party with all the typical tomfoolery."
Bus trips, round table discussions on upcoming ballot initiatives, happy hours and a new Facebook application that shows a mock ballot so voters know what's going on down ticket -- these are just a few of New Era's plans for the coming months. It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, or how young you are. Their message is that each person can impact their government.
"Come on! Who really cares about expensive college tuition, the economy or the job market and the future of our planet?" says RJ Wilson, a former young Kansas legislator. "If young people stay out of the process it means more pie for all of the other groups." Wilson agrees that most people involved in politics are from a group of powerful individuals or organizations who have more to lose or gain by legislation or elections. "The only thing [young people] have to lose or gain is their future."
Like many non-profits there is no shortage of energy and progress, but their biggest hurdle is always money. "I would love to see New Era Colorado create more media like videos, podcasts and publications to further take advantage of the way in which youth communicate," Smith said of New Era's potential. Fenberg agrees but says that many donors aren't ready to trust the youth vote yet. "I think a lot of people are looking to see what happens in 2008."
Sarah Burris is a reporter for Rock The Vote's Rock The Trail project. She covers young local, state and federal political candidates and their legislative agendas, rural issues, Green Jobs and the environment.
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