'Punkvoter' founder aims to unify youth vote
By Sasha Johnson
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Would a plea from the lead singer of "Anti-Flag," "Bouncing Souls," "Frenzal Rhomb" or "Sick Of It All" get you to turn out and vote in the 2004 presidential election?
Probably not if you're a mainstream music fan downloading the latest tune from Britney Spears. But, if you're an avid young punk music lover, it just might do the trick.
At least that's what "NOFX" lead singer and founder of "Punkvoter" Mike Burkett is hoping. Burkett or "Fat Mike" as he's known to his legion of fans, is teaming up with roughly 50 punk bands and a dozen record labels to form Punkvoter, a group designed to register, educate and push 500,000 18-24 year-olds to the polls next year.
"So many millions of people don't feel like their vote has any meaning," says Burkett. "There is no reason why younger people can't be a unified force."
Trying to recruit the politically important younger voting bloc is not a new concept. Presidential candidates, the major political parties, MTV, the World Wrestling Federation and other groups have all tried to come up with innovative ways to make participating in the electoral process "cool" for younger voters.
The results have been mixed. In the 2000 presidential election, turnout among 18-24 year-olds hovered around 29 percent, a slight jump from the 1996 election but a far cry from the almost 38 percent that turned out when Bill Clinton ran for the first time in 1992.
Burkett claims his group is different in that he is not simply sending young adults to the polls. His focus and the purpose of Punkvoter is to get these voters to cast their ballots against President George W. Bush.
The 36-year-old California native said he is trying to harness his residual anger over the outcome of the 2000 election and his current dissatisfaction with the direction of the country by mobilizing punk fans around the activist principles of the "loud, fast, aggressive" and "real" music.
"Bush getting elected was good for punk music," says Burkett. "Now people have something to get pissed off about."
Punk music lacks the coherent melodies and upbeat lyrics that would give this musical genre mass appeal. But, according to Burkett, punk is more than just music to listen to; it has a message. "Punk is historically protest music, not just about politics, but protest against society as well," he said.
"The War on Errorism," the latest release from his band NOFX, definitely has a political message. The disc contains a roughly eight-minute video about President Bush's election and the 2000 recount debacle in Florida.
Right now, Burkett is the driving force behind Punkvoter. The nascent grassroots group just re-launched its Web site (www.punkvoter.com). Besides the anti-Bush downloads, visitors can peruse "guest columns" where punk-rock heavyweights sound off on the "Patriot Act," why voting matters and the importance of uniting the punk scene before November 2004.
Burkett said his group has no immediate plans to endorse one of the nine Democrats running for the White House. "Anyone but Bush is a better candidate," he said. However, he acknowledged that the issue positions he and Punkvoter espouse fall to the left of most of the Democratic candidates with a realistic shot of beating the president.
This election cycle, he's willing to make compromises. "I like Dennis Kucinich. But I want someone who can beat Bush," he said.
Before Tuesday's "Rock the Vote" forum hosted by CNN's Anderson Cooper, Burkett hopes to deliver questionnaires to the Democratic candidates asking them to detail their positions on such issues as the war, the RAVE Act and, of course, their favorite music.
Under the so-called RAVE Act (short for Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act) event promoters and club owners can be held liable for "knowingly" allowing drug use or sales on their premises by patrons of RAVE parties or other events.
Through Punkvoter, Burkett is planning a "Rock Against Bush" concert tour next year which will take some of the big name punk bands through college campuses in key states such as Florida, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington.
A stop is planned in New York City during the Republican Convention at the end of August. Also, two or three "Rock Against Bush" compilation CDs are set to release during the campaign season.
One of Punkvoter's main missions is registration. Besides the Web site, Burkett plans to use registration tables on the "Rock Against Bush" tour and at smaller shows to reach the group's goal of 500,000 new voters.
Besides being the energy behind Punkvoter, Burkett is also bankrolling the effort, although he is starting to fund-raise on a small level. Burkett has been on the punk scene since 1983 and he said he understands the importance of grabbing the attention of young fans, and in this case young voters.
He plans to run print ads and buy TV ad time in swing states once the campaign begins in earnest.
"Just to try and get kids to vote, that's not enough," he says. "Kids don't pay attention, they don't read the news. I want to show them what it's all about."