Friday, June 20, 2008

Bicyclist Take To Highways To Recruit Voters

Burlington Free Press
By John Curran
Published June 13, 2008

Max MacDonald always wanted to bicycle across America.

Now, he's getting his chance. He won't be alone, and the ride will be anything but easy.

MacDonald, 22, and six other young Vermont residents are embarking on a 47-day, 1,800-mile bicycle trip aimed at helping register voters and raise awareness about the importance of voting, at a time when Americans are gearing up to elect a new president.

Their initiative, dubbed The Great American Voter Trek, will make stops in Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland; Chicago; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Omaha, Neb.; and Laramie, Wyo., for voter registrations and meet with local officials in 25 other places in between.

It gets under way Monday as the seven-member bike team heads west, backed by a two-man support crew, a rented RV and a whole lot of youthful idealism.

"We're going out for a cause, but we won't know how successful it is until we get out there. What will make it a success? One more person that votes," MacDonald said.

A political science graduate of St. Michael's College, MacDonald conceived the trip and used family connections -- his father is a state senator; his mother, an executive at Cabot Creamery -- to gather sponsorships from a dozen Vermont companies and the state, including Cabot Creamery and Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream.

Estimated cost of the trip: About $50,000.

The group, which has spent two months lining up its itinerary and contacts, plans to make the trip in daily increments of 40 to 75 miles. The bicyclists will travel together, with the RV -- carrying two bicycle mechanics -- leapfrogging them along the route.

The RV, which sleeps eight, has a flat-screen TV, microwave oven, power generator and full bathroom, and gets about nine miles to the gallon, will be their mobile headquarters. It will make the return trip to Vermont, the riders will not. They'll fly home.

If they get hurt while riding west, they'll go first to fellow rider Hayden Coon, 24, a trained EMT.

At the six major stops, there will be music, voter registration and giveaways of Vermont products and Vermont vacation prize drawings. In Buffalo, for example, they plan to hold forth at a Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament, an outdoor hoops tournament that draws thousands of people.

At the other locations, the riders will meet with mayors and town clerks in hopes of reaching out to nonregistered citizens at "mini events" in diners and elsewhere.

"Local officials will be there with us," MacDonald said. "They're the ones who'll sign people up. We'll come in and we'll be like, 'Hey, we're here, come talk with us and oh, by the way, you can register to vote.' We're appealing to the young people, but we're hoping anyone and everyone who isn't registered will come."

The choice of destination was partly pragmatic, partly symbolic. The riders didn't want to spend the entire summer on the trek, and they chose Wyoming as an end point because "the Equality State" was the first in the nation to let women vote, serve on juries and hold public office.

Like MacDonald, rider Megan Newhouse, a 22-year-old triathlete from South Burlington, had also talked about the possibility of a cross-country bicycle trip before becoming involved in Voter Trek.

"When I first told my mom, I said, 'Mom, I'm going to go cross-country on my bicycle,' and she said, 'Not this again.' She was extremely happy to hear it was supported and that I was doing it for a cause and wouldn't be in one of thousands of horrible scenarios she could imagine," Newhouse said.

Photo by Tony Talbot, AP. Caption: Max MacDonald and Megan Newhouse are part of a team of Vermont collegians embarking Monday on a cross-country bicycle trek aimed at helping register voters.

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