Getting the Facebook Generation Out to Vote

Half of America's young people don't vote in presidential elections. In his first documentary, 20-year-old David Burstein shows them why they should care.

DoSomething, headed by Fast Company columnist Nancy Lublin, has recognized four young social entrepreneurs with $10,000 grants--and one with a prize of $100,000. Fast Company will profile one of these enterprising youth each day this week.

<a href=David Burstein" width="200" height="300" /> "Who slew Goliath?"

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, currently the oldest member of the U.S. Congress, was staring directly at 17-year-old David Burstein. It was the summer of 2007, and the recent high school grad from Westport, Connecticut, had climbed Capitol Hill to film 18 in '08, his first documentary. He'd hoped for a rousing interview with Senator Byrd. But first, he had to answer a Bible question: "Who slew Goliath?"

Even before Burstein answered--with his own name, of course--he was pondering Byrd's analogy. His little movie-in-the-making certainly was a David. Its Goliath: voter apathy, especially among the Facebook generation.

Fewer than 47% of America's 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election, compared with nearly two-thirds of citizens 25 and older. "It's an embarrassing statistic," says Burstein, sipping coffee on a rainy morning in Manhattan. The previous night, he'd accepted a $10,000 Do Something award. "We're an involved generation, and we should care enough to vote. Young people weren't getting that message from other young people."

Instead, they were getting it from celebrities (see: Diddy's "Vote or Die" campaign) and young-ish grown-ups (see: Rock the Vote). Both campaigns were aggressive, a blunt-instrument strategy that proved somewhat ineffective during the 2004 election cycle. "Young people don't like being force-fed," explains Burstein, who is now 20.

There are no Diddy-style decrees in 18 in '08. Armed with a small camera crew and $10,000 from friends and family, Burstein spent two years travelling the country. He interviewed more than 60 congressmen, senators, student leaders, policymakers, and everyday people. Creating the documentary was a lesson in door-opening and networking in America. "Once we started interviewing high-profile figures--John Kerry, Richard Dreyfuss, James Carville--people started to care," Burstein recalls. "I had to cold-call a lot of offices, but the results are pretty kickass."

These diverse voices address a host of issues, from political cynicism to the role of new media in elections to how decisions made in Washington today will affect Burstein's generation long-term. What ties it all together is the film's message: "It's not explicitly that young people should vote," he says. "It's that they should care."

And they did. In the months following the November 2007 premiere of his 34-minute documentary, Burstein arranged more than 1,000 screenings, most featuring discussion panels and activist appearances. He scored endorsements from Olivia Wilde, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Peter Sarsgaard. He met Barack Obama. His story popped up on CNN, NPR, MTV, and FOX News. And he sold 2,000 DVDs (at $15 a pop), which he estimates reached 200,000 people. All in all, his efforts generated more than $60,000 in revenue, which he funneled back to his cause.

Burstein started this project to change minds and stir action among his peers, but it has also changed him. "I used to think I wanted to run for Congress at 25," he says. "Not anymore. This whole process has made me appreciate the value of advocacy and activism over elected politics. With the right tools, you can really shake things up."

He points to the 2008 election as evidence. By November 4, 2008, Burstein had registered 25,000 young voters. Millions more turned up at the polls: Among 18- to 24-year-olds, participation was 48.5%--up nearly 2% from 2004, and the third-highest rate in U.S. history.

Burstein plans to use his Do Something grant to maintain and even grow that momentum. "Young people have earned political capital," he says, before borrowing a phrase from George W. Bush. "And we intend to spend it."

More winners' stories:
Eric Glustrom: Choosing Your Own Adventure in Uganda
Marvelyn Brown: Raising HIV Awareness, One Young Person at a Time

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3 Comments

  • Harry Otsuji

    It’s no longer a relevant question in our time – Goliath is not named “Apathy,” his name is Obama, and he’s already won the battle. Moreover, “Who slew Goliath,” is the not the right question. We know that David did the deed, the account of which can be read in I Samuel 17, of the Bible.
    But the question must be, “What were the character and strengths of David that killed Goliath?”
    •David probably was a 20-something, born and trained in Jewish religious and social values, to deal with issues, with out-of-the-box solutions
    •He was a skilled shepherd, who single-handedly cared for flocks, day and night, protecting them against lions and bears with just a shepherd’s staff
    •He was not an arrogant, know-it-all youth who said, to his elders, “Don’t force-feed me with old truths and ways of doing things.”
    •At the call of his king, Saul, he willingly put his life on the line to destroy Goliath, for the sake of Israel.
    •Above all, David said: “I come to you (Goliath) in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” (I Samuel 17:48)

    My personal experience with 20-somethings is as follows:
    •They have earned very little, let alone political capital
    •They have no ideology, based on a well-thought out world-view, about the nature of God, nature and man
    •They are totally self-absorbed
    •They have no sense of their own personal, generational history
    •They may be savvy about communications technology, but they are basically ignorant – just plain dumb- to convey anything worthwhile
    •To most questions their standard answer is: “I feel etc.------“ They have no well-thought out beliefs, opinions, thoughts – they are just groping through life on their feelings.
    •They don’t keep commitments (I’m working with three SDSU students, who are three months behind on a written agreement to develop a website,) which means to me that you can’t trust them for their word

    As for Mr. Burstein, his 35 minutes video may make him a few dollars, but it won’t change much. First of all, he’s preaching to the choir, seeking advice from and focusing on the likes of Senator Byrd, Chris Dodd, James Carville and John Kerry. Those that he interviewed essentially hold to the ideology, essentially, of pragmatism, which is that of the ends justifying the means. (Ultimately, I believe that this will lead to anarchy and chaos, within American society.) Second of all, his mixed metaphors and inapplicable analogies reveal that he himself didn’t do proper study and analysis before making his case. The point is: Why get more young people to vote, just for the sake of voting, if they don’t understand the first thing of the foundations of American society based on the constitution. Third of all, what’s the point of giving Mr. Obama an even larger majority, unless it is to entrench statism for America on a permanent basis, and enslave w hole nation?

    Finally, Mr. Burstein is to be commended for his effort. But to achieve greatness, he needs to do some of the following:
    •Develop an ideology based upon a cohesive world-view of God, nature and man
    •Work out and ethical and moral system, of right and wrong, based upon that ideology
    •Discover who he is and the gifts with which has been endowed by God, and then commit to his life’s work
    •Get a sense of historical America and its current place in the world’s stage to know where to lead his cohort for the decades ahead
    •Like David, he needs a King (like Saul) a prophet (like Samuel) as leader, as teacher and to emulate to follow in their footsteps. There’s a great deal of difference between wisdom and knowledge, to change things in this world, for good.

    When he has completed this, the final step is to spend about 3,000 hours a year for the next five years to achieve his stated ends.

  • Harry Otsuji

    Why do large segments of our population opt out from voting? We may be an involved generation, but the question is, "Involved in what?" As we have seen family life and community and corporate disintegrate, we have given up on individual resoponisbility for others. When a society doesn't know what consitutes a family or marriage or community is, we have become more and more self-absorbed. The point is that if no one cares for or about me, why should I care about the welfare of anyone else? When a society is directed by inane, incessant polls, without thoughtful, well-considered value systems by articulated by leaders, the result is chaos or anarchy

    When on thinks about this issue,today's life is no more complex for any individual then it was for the unthinking, elite, young, old, intelligentsia, gliteratti, slavish followers in Hitler's Germany of 70 years ago. One thing that is different is the amount of information available to all of us. It seems that the more information we have the less we know about anything. Part of the problem is that we, now as then, haven't developed an overriding value system(s) to evaluate and filter out the wheat from the chaff, to direct our lives to focus on that which is vital, to pursue that which is best for the common good, not only for now but for the generations coming up behind us.

    It also seems insasne to me that 20 somethings in our society, technologically savvy, but haven't gone through the crucible of life and living to have developed coherent value systems, to encourage other young people to vote for the sake of voting, may result in unintended consequences they didn't wish for.

    Mark Bauerlein, author, "The Dumbest Generation," has it tight - the young (as welll as other in our society,) are not only dumb but stupid about the quality of life. Sorry, but a long,fulfilled life won't happen strong commitment to values for a quality life which involves others, can't be made up by the quanity of thngs, whether of things, money, power and information.

    If change in voting habits are to be made, we first need to be able get people to put their minds in gear. The question each one needs to ask and receive answer is: "What are consequences if I do or don't vote?" For consquences good and/or bad will surely follow, if not now then later.

    To get answers to these questions, take commitment of time and effort. Sacrifice, anyone?
    Faithfully yours, Harry h. Otsuji

  • David Gage

    The primary reason many regardless of age do not want to vote, you know where you supposedly elect someone to represent you, is that it makes no sense. YOU CANNOT BE REPRESENTED AS A WHOLE BUT ONLY A SINGLE PART AT ANY GIVEN TIME AND THEREFORE THE ONLY PERSON WHO CAN REPRESENT YOU FOR MORE THAN ONE ITEM ON A GIVEN DAY IS YOU! The time has come for this nation or the first nation which actually wants to solve the national failure issues related to this very problem whereby the non-caring voters actually turn into caring ones is the accept a truly democratic constitution like the one available on the site www.democraticroad.com. The concept of being represented may have been fine a few hundred years ago but today life is extremely complex and not a single person really knows what is going on anywhere. The President of the United States does not know 100th of 1 percent of what is going on. This is not to deride the individual but to point out that as the world and our lives become more complex the less anyone knows what is going on and herein lies the primary justification for introducing a new form of government wherein the latest technologies allow each voter to decide on the acceptance or rejection of any concept or program and if accepted to hire the right people to get the job done. Oh, by the way, before any of this can be done we will first have to change the existing taxation system to a basic sales tax on every product and service where the only taxpayers are the consumers, but that is another story.