We want to sell the notion that this is an important rite of passage, that with the vote comes the power to be an accomplice in changing things…in whatever direction you wish. Those kids are ready, and that’s the way we’re moving forward. There’s a lot of dry grass out there waiting for a spark. We hope to provide the spark that gets them understanding that they do matter. — Norman Lear, April 25, 2007
Once in a while, an overused word actually makes sense. In this case, it’s using the word visionary to describe Norman Lear. Of course, one shouldn’t be surprised by that — or by the passion he brings to any project. From his revolutionary TV show, All in the Family in the 1970s, to Maude, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and numerous others, he stretched – no, tore – the bounds of propriety and acceptability. Behind the laughter and absurdity of his work, he dared Americans to challenge their own biases and preconceptions. At a time when television characters were more caricatures than people, he gave three-dimensional life to bigots, liberals, women, and blacks.
However, his true passion is America. Twice during our interview, he talked about "my First Amendment, my Bill of Rights, my Constitution" as sacred documents. In 2003, he bought one of the 25 original copies of the Declaration of Independence, printed the night of July 4, 1776. Just before then, he had hired former journalist and political strategist Cherie Simon to run his foundation and then the Declaration of Independence project. She found herself managing the national tour for what Lear calls "the country’s birth certificate — The Declaration of Independence."
"The tour was great," Lear said, "and included a lot of stars such as Morgan Freeman, Renée Zellweger, and others, but we also got footage of 50 country western stars singing 'America the Beautiful' backed by iconic American footage. It was a lot of bells and whistles that went into the exhibit designed by David Rockwell."
The tour sparked the idea for reaching out to young people. Simon explained, "in the last year of the tour, the November before the 2004 election, we decided to focus more strategically on young people and how to get them to register to vote."
Of course, they decided to think big. "Norman wanted the campaign to be strictly nonpartisan," Simon said, "so we got a lot of corporate support, and we launched Declare Yourself one year before the election. To our amazement, we registered over one million young people."
Declare Yourself, despite its early success, was still a work in progress, and they discovered an even more valuable tool — the Internet. "With all the touring," Lear said, "we found that we registered more people in a half an hour when Yahoo! put us on the front page," Lear said. "A couple of clicks brought people right to us, and they could download a registration form. We decided that, in the next iteration, we would go after all the website partners we could find."
He emphasized, "We wanted our campaign to build on the momentum of the record number of young voters in 2004 and an increase of more than two million young voters in the 2006 midterm election over 2002."
To date, they've made arrangements with Yahoo! and MySpace, YouTube, Google, Friendster, Evite, and Good Search. Of course, the Internet was just a start – what about those five or ten kids who don’t have Internet access?
Given their goal of registering every eligible 18-year-old by 2008, it made sense to cast a wide net. Comedy Central and Clear Channel have signed up, and their education partner, the Close Up Foundation, will be developing programs for America's high schools.
Golden Globe winner America Ferrera, ABC's Ugly Betty, and Hayden Panettiere from NBC’s hit show Heroes, who turns 18 this year, will serve as spokespeople for the project. Declare Yourself will work closely with young celebrities, sports figures, and fashion designers; popular television shows; mobile content providers; retailers; video gaming; and media outlets, blogs, and anyone else who might be able to drive those non-registered young folk to their website.
Simon noted, "We've been averaging, with no promotion and without activating the partnerships, around 2000 registrations every three days — with nothing on our part. It's amazing."