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Drumming Up the Youth Vote

Like its uncompromising music, punk rock takes sides -- left and right -- as a tool for democracy

March 29, 2004|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

When members of the punk band NOFX hit the stage at UC Riverside next week, they'll bring more than their usual ska tunes and irreverent lyrics. As members of a new political movement that crosses partisan lines, they'll also bring a serious message urging young people to vote in the 2004 presidential election.

"I feel it's my responsibility as a musician to speak out to people," said Mike Burkett, front man for NOFX and founder of Punkvoter. "Why should people only listen to politicians and millionaires? Everyone should have a voice in this."

Punkvoter is one of several organizations recently founded by musicians to increase youth voting, which has been decreasing for decades. Others include Bands Against Bush, Conservative Punk and GOPunk.

Many organized efforts -- most famously Rock the Vote, which started 12 years ago -- have sought to mobilize the youth vote. But these new groups have shunned the gentle ways of their predecessors and are delivering their messages with a sharp political edge.

"Rock the Vote just tells kids to go vote. I don't think that's enough. I think you have to show kids why they have to vote, because this affects their lives," said Burkett, whose group opposes the war in Iraq and is critical of other Bush administration policies.

"We don't claim to be balanced," said Conservative Punk founder Nick Rizzuto. "We're an alternative to the typical left-wing stance of most punks, and a place for punks who do lean to the conservative or libertarian side."

Political experts say they aren't surprised that punk activists would cross the spectrum, given how politically divided the nation is.

"Politics has grown more partisan," said Frank Gilliam, a political science professor at UCLA. "It's not surprising that this gets manifest among young people. They're caught in the undertow of national forces."

Voting rates overall have been declining for decades, but the drop is particularly acute among young people. In the 1972 presidential election, the first in which 18-year-olds could vote, nearly 50% of those 18 to 24 cast ballots, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2000, the bureau said, 32.3% of the same group voted.

"If we know much about voting, we know people who have longer-standing commitments to a particular community, who are married, who have kids in the schools, are much more likely to vote," Gilliam said. "That's not characteristic of young people, who are transient, typically not settled, not married, with little long-term attachment to any particular community."

Burkett, 37, decided he had to do something after the 2000 presidential election, the first time he had voted. He realized that if only a slightly larger fraction of NOFX fans from Florida had voted, the election could have turned out differently.

Last year, he decided to form Punkvoter, hoping to register 500,000 young people across the nation. He put in $100,000 of his own money and called other punk bands for support. Scores signed on, including hugely popular acts such as Blink-182, Green Day and Good Charlotte. The organization plans to release a compilation album this year, and bands are performing at shows nationwide that will also feature political speakers and voter registration booths.

NOFX, Alkaline Trio and Authority Zero and will play Sunday at the National Orange Show in San Bernardino, and on April 6 at UC Riverside. Jello Biafra, a former member of the Dead Kennedys and an activist, will speak at both events.

On the other end of the political spectrum are organizations like Conservative Punk and GOPunk. The latter's website quotes President Ronald Reagan and has an "Iraqi freedom gallery" with more than 100 pictures of soldiers in action.

Rizzuto said he founded Conservative Punk in January to raise awareness that not all punks are liberal.

"Among punks, it's almost exclusively left wing, as far as activism goes. However, I've always been into punk and I've always been conservative," he said. "I figured there were more people like me out there, which turned out to be right, because the response we've been getting is incredible."

New York-based Conservative Punk's website features columns, political cartoons and links to other conservative sites. In Connecticut, several punk bands plan to tour under the Conservative Punk banner.

Political observers commend the groups for trying to increase youth voting but are skeptical how effective they can be.

"I've always been impressed by these youth get-out-the-vote movements. They do, in fact, register hundreds of thousands of young people," Gilliam said. But, noting the consistent downward trend and saying neither presidential hopeful has the youth appeal of Bill Clinton, "it's my impression we're not going to see tidal waves of young people turning out to vote" in November.

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Times staff writer Sandra Murillo contributed to this report.

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