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Wrestlers Launch Effort to Encourage Young Americans to Vote - 2004-07-24

Most professional wrestlers spend their time practicing for grueling bouts in the ring, where they wield everything from complicated holds to folding chairs to attain victory. But some of the stars from World Wrestling Entertainment have been practicing civic responsibility and wielding their power on behalf of young voters. Jeremy White was at the US Capitol when WWE's "Smackdown the Vote" campaign came to Washington.

Professional wrestlers are not a common sight on Capitol Hill. But musclemen joined men with political muscle to promote the "Smackdown the Vote" campaign to register voters between the ages of 18 and 30.

"I think it's been extremely, extremely successful considering that in under a year we've registered one million voters. So, you know, I think the success stands on its own legs," says Wrestler Maven Huffman.

He says the campaign began when fellow wrestler "The Rock" appeared at the last Republican National Convention.

"It began back in 2000 when the Rock did the Republican National Convention. He spoke at the Republican National Convention, and it was extremely successful then, and it snowballed into what it is today," he explains. "It snowballed into the WWE having a hands-on approach to getting the word out that the youth of today will be running the country tomorrow, so they might as well have their votes heard now."

Maven Huffman and fellow wrestlers Chris Nowinski and "The Hurricane" joined U.S. Congressmen Kendrick Meek of Florida and Tim Ryan of Ohio to talk about young people who want to register to vote, but can't. They're college students attending school away from their home district and local election officials are not allowing them to register as residents of their school's state. Congressman Meek said lawmakers are working with the WWE to educate college students about what's known as 'voter suppression,' so that they can fully exercise their voting rights.

"Well, we're meeting with the WWE wrestlers and also with our 30-something group that we have here in the Congress working against voter suppression, wanting to make sure that students know that they can register to vote where they go to school," says Congressman Meek. "If you live in Sioux City Iowa but if you go to school in Michigan, you can register to vote for the November election. So as student start to return [to school], we want them to not only register for class, but register to vote, so that they can be near a polling place come November 2 so their voice can be heard."

Voters who will not be near their polling places on November 2 may cast absentee ballots in their home districts. But many students say they're on campus most of the year, not at home? and they want their votes to reflect their day to day concerns.

This emphasis on the voting rights of college students comes in response to several cases of alleged voting suppression. In Williamsburg, Virginia, students at the College of William and Mary who were not allowed to register as state residents appealed to higher courts and won.

However, Williamsburg registrar David Andrews sees the issue differently than the students. He points to a Virginia law, which says that college students hold the same status as any temporary resident, so they are not being discriminated against or disenfranchised.

"It was following the constitution of Virginia and the code of Virginia, which requires that all applicants to apply to register to vote both have to have domicile and residence in the locality which they wish to register," says Mr. Andrews. "In Williamsburg, the students who were saying they were being discriminated against are having to follow the same procedure as anybody who provides a temporary address - doesn't make any difference whether it's a hotel address, a campground, a college dormitory a military base, they're requested to provide additional information to make sure they're actually domiciled."

However the statute is interpreted, World Wrestling Entertainment continues to champion young voters. Kendrick Meek says, although the wrestlers attract more attention than Congressmen do, he and his fellow lawmakers are still able to back the WWE up and play a role in defending their youngest constituents.

"All we can do is try to get the information out when we can," adds Mr. Meek. "But, as elected leaders, it's up to us to be able to point out inequities in the process. And one of them is the fact that many supervisors are not aware of the fact that these young people can register to vote." Normally on the road 260 days a year, the wrestlers of the "Smackdown the Vote" tour are stepping up efforts as the presidential election draws closer, and will be appearing in communities all across the country, talking to young citizens about registering to vote.