Cellular get-out-the-vote efforts send message to young adults

Phones: Here and abroad, wireless text is being used to tap the age 18-to-24 crowd.

September 02, 2004|By Katharine Goodloe | Katharine Goodloe,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Calling young voters - literally: Cell phones are the newest link to the political arena, as get-out-the-vote efforts begin using text messages to reach them.

The technology, which lets users send and receive short text-based messages from their cell phones, hit the mainstream after the 2002 launch of television's American Idol. Viewers of the reality/talent show used text messages to vote for contestants after each episode. Voter drives want to apply that surge of text message popularity to the real world - and to November's presidential election.

"Most young people aren't going to have the pamphlet from the Secretary of State's office telling them where to go and vote. They're going to have their cell phones," Jehmu Greene, president of MTV's "Rock the Vote" campaign.

Last December, nearly 159 million Americans owned a wireless phone, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association; the figure has since risen to more than 165 million. And with low voter-turnout rates among young adults - only a third of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2000 election - mobilizing young people means using mobile technology. It's a strategy that has rallied voters from the Philippines to the European Union.

"As a way to engage in complex political discourse, it is probably not the most useful tool," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. But for "drive-by" messages, such as encouraging people to vote, he predicted the messages will have greater success.

Companies are gearing up for that drive-by pass.

The Ad Council, Upoc Networks and the Federal Voting Assistance Program teamed up to form Register and Vote 2004, a nonpartisan group that will use text messages to remind young people about voter-registration deadlines and election dates.

Cingular and Motorola have partnered with "Rock the Mobile Vote," an on-the-go extension of Rock the Vote's efforts to mobilize young voters. The program uses text messages to poll participants on election issues - one way to reach the many young people who don't have a land line phone, Greene said.

The programs, so far, require users to sign up for the service - so there's no unsolicited messaging. But with 150,000 young people signing up for Rock the Vote's program, it means a lot more text messages for cell phone providers. And that means better business.

"The young demographic, under 25 years old, is the fastest-growing group in the country," said Dave Garner, executive director of marketing for Cingular, who estimated that 15 percent to 20 percent of Cingular's subscribers fall in that category. "It's furthering our business to serve that age group."

But is it effective? The real benefit of text messages might be in engaging young people who are already politically active, not in reaching new people, according to a recent University of Maryland study.

The survey of 1,000 15- to 25-year-olds found that young people are unlikely to react to unsolicited text messages. But if the programs are voluntary, that changes the response, said David Skaggs of the Washington-based Council for Excellence in Government, which co-sponsored the UM survey.

"If people have signed up for something, it shifts [the results] to the positive end of the spectrum," he said.

Anthony Bearden, 25, said he might like political information beamed to his cell phone "to keep myself in the loop." But he isn't planning on voting this fall. "I like to observe," the Dallas resident said.

Advocates said the success of text-message campaigns abroad bode well for political use here.

In the Philippines, the intensely popular technology has led to political protests. In 2001, demonstrators used text messages to coordinate a gathering outside the office of President Joseph Estrada in an uprising that led to his ouster. This year, former senator Raul Roco formed a "text message brigade" to mobilize young voters in his unsuccessful presidential bid.

Just before Britain's 2001 elections, the Labour Party sent text messages to voters to ask for their support the next day at the polls. Italian voters received a similar message the night before this month's European Union elections. And in Canada, political parties are exchanging text messages with young people as part of the "Youth Text 2004" push.

"The bottom line is that in a culture that is so incredibly and complexly noisy right now - people go home and have 400 channels on their digital cable - the ability to get anyone to attend to any one message is really hard to do," Thompson said. "Text messages, because it's still new and novel, is something that people are paying attention to."

Knight Ridder/Tribune writer Silla Brush contributed to this article.

Making the link

www.rockthevote.com

Web site has "Rock the Vote" campaign information and text- message sign-up.

registerandvote2004.org

Web site's features include election news, quizzes and text-message sign-up.

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