Politics & Government

Florida organization uses bar scene to engage young voters

Anthony Joyce — one of the founders of Party Politics — bares his affiliation at a Party Politics party.
Anthony Joyce — one of the founders of Party Politics — bares his affiliation at a Party Politics party. Charles Trainor Jr. / Miami Herald

The Hollywood, Fla., nightclub is dark and the music so loud that conversation means leaning into an ear and shouting. But the drinks are free until midnight, and anyway most in the upstairs room of Passion nightclub are dancing, not talking.

Still, Chris Chiari, a Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, mingles in the crowd, drink in hand, campaigning.

He shouts, by way of conversation: "This is real political action.''

This, to be exact, is Party Politics Inc. — the latest, but not the first or only effort to engage 20-somethings in politics by appealing to their inner party animal.

The idea is simple: host parties with a two-hour open bar about once a month at South Florida nightclubs. Post fliers at local colleges and send messages to friends on Facebook and MySpace.

The target audience: Generation Y, or Echo Boomers, or Millenials. Really, anyone born between 1980 and 1994.

Sometimes, partygoers are asked to register to vote, or to fill out an absentee ballot request form. But mostly they're left alone to mingle with each other or with elected officials and candidates working the room for votes and campaign volunteers.

''We don't have long, boring speeches,'' says Alexander Lewy, 27, of Hallandale Beach, who co-founded Party Politics in fall 2007 with Matthew Baratz and Anthony Joyce, two 22-year-olds from Pembroke Pines.

Though Party Politics is registered as a Florida corporation and not a political entity -- and despite the protestations of its founders that they're a nonpartisan group -- the Democratic leanings are obvious and deep:

Baratz, Joyce and Lewy are officers of the Broward Young Democrats, which helps sponsor some of their events.

Joyce, who made a failed but well-publicized run for Pembroke Pines mayor in 2004, is an assistant to State Rep. Ari Porth (D-Coral Springs). Lewy, a congressional aide to U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Miami), just launched his first run for public office, on the Hallandale Beach City Council.

Even the visual cues are Democratic: the Party Politics logo is a donkey — ''It's actually a pinata . . . seriously,'' Lewy says — and a flier for the recent nightclub party featured an image of the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, and a riff on his campaign slogan: "Yes We Can Party.''

Yet the group will organize events for candidates of any affiliation, Lewy insists. ''We don't force politics on anybody,'' he says.

Reaching out

Political affiliations aside, Party Politics's six events since November have drawn about 1,000 people, Lewy says. Baratz estimates those same events have led 150 people to register to vote or to fill out an absentee ballot request, says Baratz, an accountant and the only Party Politics founder not employed by an elected official. He also credits Party Politics for an estimated 20 percent increase in attendance at Broward Young Democrats' monthly meetings, which draw about 70 people.

Those are modest numbers, to be sure. And that's OK by Lewy. The idea isn't to just get voters psyched about the presidential election, he says, it's to motivate young Americans to engage in politics over the long term.

''It's not for the next four months,'' he says.

No matter whether Party Politics lives up to that test, the group is following a tried-and-true method for reaching young voters: personal, repeated contact, preferably in a friendly environment.

They're also doing it at a time when young voters are turning out to vote in larger numbers than in past elections.

Among voters 29 and younger, the Florida primaries in January drew 285,000, or 13 percent of the eligible population, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. The state's 2000 primaries drew 80,000 young voters, or 4 percent.

To be sure, a lot has happened since 2000 that would motivate voters of all ages to become more engaged in politics. But young voters are particularly aware of the times in which they've come of age.

''Eighteen- to 29-year-olds right now have grown up and were introduced to public life in a time when we had contested elections, ideological polarization, and terrorist attacks and wars,'' says Abby Kiesa, an outreach coordinator and researcher at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

Add the spread of the 24-hour news cycle across TVs, computers and cellphones, and there's even more reason for young people to become politically engaged, Kiesa says.

Another development affecting young voters is that political campaigns are targeting them once again.

Elizabeth Matto, a political scientist who heads the Youth Political Participation Program for the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, says that for a time political campaigns assumed young voters just weren't interested.

''There was such a long period of decline in youth voter turnout that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy,'' Matto said. ``So the less youth turned out, the less candidates would reach out to them.''

That attitude began to change after the 2000 election, Matto says, when only 42 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in America voted, compared to the high point of 55 percent in the 1972 presidential race.

Young voter apathy in 2000 also led to the emergence of groups such as Generation Engage, which brings political leaders to meet young voters in cafés, pool halls, and through video conferences; and Headcount, an effort to register young voters at rock concerts.

Perhaps the best known organization connecting youth interests and political activism is Rock the Vote, which was formed in 1990.

Will it last?

Even as these and other organizations work to engage young voters, though, no one assumes that 20-somethings will vote consistently in future elections or step up their political activism.

At the recent Party Politics event at Passion nightclub, Ruben Calixte, 25, of Lauderdale Lakes, said he was there more for the social networking than the politics.

It was Calixte's first time at a Party Politics event, but he said he intended to attend a meeting of the Broward Young Democrats and look into possibly joining.

He liked the idea of a political gathering in a nightclub and said the atmosphere did not dumb down the idea of activism.

''This is what people my age are doing,'' he said. ``We like to go out to clubs. In order to get our attention, you have to go to where we are.''

A few days after the event, Baratz, one of the co-founders, reflected on the future political participation of the partygoers.

''Of course, yeah, on the one hand they're going for free booze,'' he says. ``But on the other hand they're meeting new people and they know that, I would say, politics is in the air and it's just giving them an opportunity.''

Indeed, Chiari, the Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, sensed a recruitment opportunity in the crowd of more than 150.

''Even if 10 to 15 people become core activists, one person can knock on 100 doors a day,'' Chiari shouted above the noise. ``There are people here tonight who will end up walking my precinct for me.''

Until then, they were just drinking and dancing. And maybe next time, they'll come back for more.