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John Baer: They rock! Group uses concerts to sign up young voters

I'M NOT MUCH of a rock concert fan. I'm too old and they're too loud. And even when I wasn't too old I didn't go to many.

I'M NOT MUCH of a rock concert fan.

I'm too old and they're too loud.

And even when I wasn't too old I didn't go to many.

Elton John once (but that wasn't my idea), the Righteous Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel and (to really date myself) The Temptations.

I also saw Andrea Bocelli, though I'm not sure that counts.

Still, I find it interesting that rock concerts these days are taking on an active political bent.

Pearl Jam, for example, performed in Camden over the weekend, and a nonmusical group called HeadCount was with them.

HeadCount is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, New York-based, almost entirely volunteer national effort to sign up young people across the country to vote in November's elections.

It's subtler than rapper P. Diddy's '04 "Vote or Die" campaign but no less ambitious: 1,700 volunteers in 40 cities looking to grab 100,000 new voters at concert sites and festivals this summer.

Since Memorial Day weekend, it pulled in 25,000 - including 205 from the two Pearl Jam gigs in Camden.

It was created by musicians, and is largely funded by performers: the Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Pearl Jam and others.

Its co-founder is former Penn student Marc Brownstein, of Wynnewood, who plays bass in the Philly-based band the Disco Biscuits.

(Brownstein was close to graduating when the band, which celebrates its 10th anniversary July 4, started touring nationally. He's now 35, but plans to go back and finish his degree.)

HeadCount plays off similar sign-up efforts such as Rock the Vote, Declare Yourself and Project Vote, usually on college campuses.

Brownstein helped start targeting concerts after an idea came to him while performing: "I'd look out at the audience and say, 'The 2000 presidential election was decided by less people [about 500 votes in Florida] than I'm looking at right now.' "

He says, "We have the ability to reach this community, and this community has the ability to be a very strong voice in politics."

How strong?

There are 44 million eligible voters aged 18 to 29, a fifth of the total eligible vote.

And despite lackluster past performance, and ongoing perceptions that youths don't vote, there's evidence that things are changing.

"They're closing the gap," says Peter Levine, director of the University of Maryland-based (soon to be Tufts-based) Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

CIRCLE data show that a record 6.5 million under-30 voters took part in the just-ended primary and caucus season, almost doubling turnout - from nine percent to 17 percent in states with comparable statistics - since the last open-seat presidential primaries, in 2000.

And, yeah, 17 percent (in Pennsylvania, 14 percent) isn't all that impressive, but the growth rate in the primaries suggests that a little-noted trend of increased youth voting in general elections is likely to continue.

"In the last three general elections," says Levine, "younger voters out-performed the rest of the population."

In the 2000 General Election, for example, 40.3 percent of voters 18 to 29 voted. By '04, that number rose to 49 percent.

No other age group had such a climb, Levine says.

And this year?

"I think the potential is enormous," says Sujatha Jahagirdar, of the New Voters Project, a Boston-based group working to mobilize young voters that partners with HeadCount.

She notes that 18- to 29-year-olds reflect a rise in overall civic engagement and a "positive pendulum swing" in terms of interest in issues, often Internet-fueled, especially global warming and college costs.

She also says that candidates now pay more attention to younger voters, and she cites Barack Obama's and John McCain's frequent college stops and appearances on youth-oriented MTV and Comedy Central.

All this is a good thing.

Elections should be about the future. And while I'm still not much of a rock concert fan, I like what they're doing for democracy. *

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