Alumna leads charge for youth vote

Walking in to the Obama victory party just after the 2008 Iowa Caucuses, Heather Smith PPS’98, director of Rock the Vote, knew she had proved everyone wrong. Journalists, politicians and strategists had told her young voters would stay away from the polls. Just hours before, during an on-air interview ABC newsman Sam Donaldson had mocked her mission and said things would never change. But when she entered the party that night,  Barack Obama called her over to the stage and said, “I told you we could do this.”

Heather Smith PPS’98This moment reminded Smith that, “If you have a big idea, it’s based in research, and you talk to enough people about it, things could happen,” as she had begun to learn during her time as a public policy major. Since graduating, Smith has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments, including the coordination of the 2008 “Rock the Caucus” event in Iowa.

The event invited high school seniors to attend tailgate-like parties the night of caucuses – but to be eligible to enter they had to learn their caucus location. After the parties, volunteers drove tens of thousands of those students directly to their caucus locations. As a result, youth voter turnout at the caucuses increased by more than 700 percent compared to the 2004 caucuses -- and the majority of those votes went to Huckabee and Obama, the victorious candidates. 

Before joining Rock the Vote, Smith worked with Green Corps, which trains organizers for critical environmental campaigns. While there, she ran a national campaign to have President Bill Clinton protect 16 million acres of roadless areas. She worked with a national network of Green Corps fellows and trainees, who contacted their senators in hopes of influencing the President’s decision.  Just before President Clinton left office, Smith received a phone call from the White House asking her to come to Washington, D.C.

“At first, I thought it was my brother prank calling me,” Smith said. Once she realized the invitation was actually coming from the White House, Smith quickly alerted her co-workers, setting up a phone tree for the easy communication of any announcements President Clinton might make. After stopping to purchase her first cellular phone, Smith boarded a plane bound for Washington.

Once there, she and 20 other attendees were bused to the nearby Shenandoah Valley, where President Clinton announced he would sign legislation to protect the entire 16 million acres of roadless area. Smith considered it a victory, but then, as one of his first acts in office, President George W. Bush reversed the decision Smith was forced to reevaluate her assumptions.

 “I realized power came from money and votes, not people and votes like I was taught at Green Corps,” Smith said. “I wanted to find the progressive voters and then find ways to mobilize them.”

Smith then founded the nonprofit Young Voter Strategy and developed a model for  increasing  turnout among voters 18 to 29 years old. The organization’s efforts helped increase voter turnout by 14 percent in six pilot states in 2004. Still, the day after the election the headlines declared “Youth turnout a bust.”  Realizing that she would need to redouble her efforts to overcome the entrenched negative image of young voters Smith merged her organization with Rock the Vote.,

Now Smith holds weekly meetings with White House officials to discuss how to engage youth voters. Though the 2008 elections showed a remarkable increase in youth voter turnout, Smith says politicians’ work is not done. “If politicians do not continue to show youth voters why politics is relevant to them – and court them – then we’ll lose all those voters,” she said.