As I walked through 125th Street in Harlem last December — when the new Jordans were released — I saw a line of young people that stretched from the store stretched from the Apollo to 127th and 7th Ave. As I walked by and saw them, all happy and ready to spend $200 for a pair of sneakers, I pondered to myself: How many of these young people are registered to vote? I thought about Nike and the other companies that attract the interests of today’s youth. Then it dawned on me — what if these companies were brought together to promote civic engagement? What if registering to vote got you 10% off your next purchase of Nike shoes , or showing up to vote got you on the short list for the next big video game release?
It’s no secret that young people don’t turn out to vote. Some see this as an obvious sign of young people’s lack of interest in politics. But young people are engaging in other civic activities at a higher rate than previous generations. For example, 36% have volunteered within the last year; and 30% have boycotted a product because of the conditions under which it was made or the values of the company that made the product. Yet, there’s a cynicism about the value of participating in the political process. A Harvard Institute of Politics poll in 2008 found that 81% of people from the ages of 18-24 agreed with the statement that community service is effective “as a way of solving important issues facing your community.” Only 63% said the same about political participation.
Young voters may not feel that they have much say in the political process, or see the connection between voting and the impact of policy. It doesn’t mean they don’t care about policy — think about the furor over net neutrality, the protests over student loan debt — but not all see how getting out and voting for city council or state congress affects the issues they read in the news.
By gathering a cohort of businesses that are willing to offer incentives to young people willing to become more civically engaged and vote, the program could both encourage higher levels of participation and drive consumers towards products and services. For instance, Apple could offer a free download to anyone who attends a program at the local board of elections learning about voting and the process to vote. Sports teams and celebrities could throw some star power behind this: imagine a voter drive where you could also get an autograph after registering to vote.
Young people increasingly care about responsible business models and the concept of ‘doing good’ through enterprise. Companies, in response, want to create loyalty and promote an image that in congruent with young consumers’ values and choices. The participatory nature of this program offers ‘proof’ that companies are giving back in order to teach and promote civic engagement, and will likely be enthusiastically received by young shoppers.
There is also opportunity to incorporate smart technology and social media. What if you could download an app to learn more about which offers coordinated with which civic activities? You could even collect points for better deals with multiple civic engagement activities. It could automatically update your Facebook and tweet your participation. A Facebook application to track your points could spur competition — which of your friends has earned the most? — and score big for businesses as they get essentially free advertising for the participating products and services they are contributing.
This idea is non-partisan. Participants don’t have to register with either party or reveal whom they voted for, just that they voted. Although many are quick to call young voters Democrats — and many of them are — this may be more of a response to the Democratic party’s attention (although minimal) to young voters. Young voters overwhelming describe themselves as ‘moderate’ and many are comfortable switching party lines on various issues.
Critics may scoff at the suggestion that we need to incentivize people to do something they “ought to be doing for themselves,” but in a fast-paced and information-saturated world, good civic initiatives need to be innovate to compete. It helps everyone, not just the youth. Democracy functions best when there are many voices being expressed. Finally, it is natural to reward positive behavior in the young — after all, as children in elementary school, didn’t we get gold stars for good behavior?
Post by Marvin Bing and Cassady Fendlay.