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They want you … to vote

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Gould alumni boost civic participation with Rock the Vote and I am a voter

By Julie Riggot

In 1990, Rock the Vote forever changed the political landscape with the simple yet revolutionary idea that young people should have political power. The nonpartisan nonprofit’s efforts to engage youth in politics through pop culture, art, music and technology made such an impact — 8 million voter registrations over 30 years — that the name itself became a powerful verb in the political lexicon. 

Indeed, after the 100-year high in voter turnout for the 2018 midterm elections, in which 36 percent of citizens ages 18 to 29 reported voting, a Washington Post headline proclaimed: “Young people actually rocked the vote in 2018.”

The man behind the idea for Rock the Vote is Jeff Ayeroff (JD 1971).

The man behind the idea for Rock the Vote is Jeff Ayeroff (JD 1971), a longtime music industry executive formerly with A&M Records, Warner Bros. Records and Virgin Records America. Escalating artist censorship in the 1980s provoked him to make his mark in civic engagement, though his political fervor flared up in his student days. 

As an undergraduate in political science at UCLA during the Vietnam War, Ayeroff was, as he puts it, a “fellow traveler” of Students for a Democratic Society. After graduation, he aimed for a career in the music industry and found some of the best-known music lawyers were USC alumni. That led to enrolling at USC Gould.

A self-described “long-haired leftist kid,” he served as the student representative to the faculty, but then “got thrown out for shutting down the school during the invasion of Cambodia.”

“I was reinstated when Professor Gary Bellows, my friend, represented me to the faculty,” Ayeroff recalls.  

After jobs at “small but interesting” entertainment firms, Ayeroff landed at A&M. Later, as founder and co-chair of Virgin’s U.S. label, he was inspired to rally more than 50 fellow record label executives to form Rock the Vote as a retort to the Parents Music Resource Center (which advocated for parental advisory stickers on music with violent, drug-related or sexual content) and a subsequent obscenity arrest of members of the hip hop group 2 Live Crew.

Offended by the idea of parental advisory stickers, Ayeroff was the perfect foil for them. 

“I wouldn’t sign an act that needed a sticker,” he says. “2 Live Crew was an act I would not have signed, but it’s that liberal adage of: ‘I don’t think like you do, but I don’t like censorship, so I’ll fight for your right to do it.’” 

Ayeroff, a music video pioneer who has worked with iconic artists like Madonna, Prince, Fiona Apple and Jennifer Lopez, secured Rock the Vote’s first partnership with MTV, promoting the message that “Censorship Is Un-American.” One of Rock the Vote’s biggest accomplishments, in his opinion, was backing the Motor Voter bill (the National Voter Registration Act of 1993) allowing voters to register at DMVs. The group also led the way in civic technology and created a groundbreaking voting app.

Thirty years later, Rock the Vote is still the largest youth organization to register young voters. Its current partnerships include Brands for Democracy and Athletes Rock the Vote.

“Youth voting has become, as you see with Bernie Sanders right now, part of the lexicon of politics, which is what I set out to do 30 years ago,” says Ayeroff, now retired from both Rock the Vote and the music industry. “Rock the Vote invented the idea that kids could change an election. Bill Clinton told me that he thinks Rock the Vote made the difference in him being elected.”

Civic engagement, civic education

Prof. Franita Tolson says groups that try to organize people register to vote are "fighting the good fight."

Engaging voters is a constant challenge, with registration requirements varying by state and misinformation campaigns proliferating on social media, says Professor Franita Tolson, vice dean for faculty and academic affairs and an expert in election and constitutional law.

“Groups that try to organize and help people register to vote are really, really important,” she says. “Seven years ago, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted a central part of the Voting Rights Act and made it easier for states to pass laws that restrict access to the right to vote.” 

These groups also perform a civic education function. 

“It’s becoming more common that people don’t understand the right to vote or why it’s important,” Tolson says. “If you don’t know your rights, it’s really difficult to understand the importance of an election.”

In the upcoming presidential election, young voters could have a huge impact. According to the nonpartisan voter registration group I am a voter, 62% of eligible voters in 2020 will be under the age of 39.

Mandana Dayani (Political Science 2003/JD 2007) created and co-founded I am a voter, one of at least 10 other groups including Headcount and Voto Latino that have launched since Rock the Vote. 

Dayani started as a corporate attorney at Paul Hastings LLP, then worked as a talent agent, ran Rachel Zoe Inc. and was chief brand officer for Everything But The House. 

“As an immigrant from Iran, I have always felt so indebted to our country for welcoming my family with endless opportunity and compassion,” she says. “And I was just really heartbroken seeing our country so divided the last few years. I knew I had to at least try to help.” 

 Mandana Dayani (Political Science 2003/JD 2007), creator and co-founder of I am a voter.

After exploratory meetings with several senators and congresswomen, Dayani says she “saw an opportunity for a modern voting brand that was positive, empowering and that really captured how cool it is to be an active participant.”

I am a voter began in 2018 with 20 women. A founding partnership with Creative Artists Agency helped them scale up quickly. They have partnered with brands such as Disney, the NBA, GOOP and AMC Theatres, as well as hundreds of influencers, celebrities and local schools and companies. 

“By leveraging our text platform, which can confirm registration and provide polling locations and reminders, we are working to make voter participation accessible to all,” Dayani says. 

As Tolson says: “There is still hope. There are people who are fighting the good fight.”

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