Chris Reed has had to work nonstop this election season. He's been to a Jay-Z concert. He frequents the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. to watch musicians. He had to go to Bonnaroo and countless other music festivals — some with electronic music, others with bluegrass. Reed thinks he's probably been to 35 shows this year.
It's a slightly more exciting schedule than your average midterm grind. But, like every other political organization trying to get young voters interested in the 2014 election, an organization called HeadCount, where Reed volunteers, has had to expand and diversify its efforts. Politicians are now tweeting and 'gramming, and HeadCount, a voter registration group that's been around for a decade, is trying to reach the types of twenty-somethings who might not like jam bands.
When executive director Andy Bernstein started HeadCount in 2004, his volunteers would set up tables at the back of Phish and CAKE concerts, registering young voters by meeting them where they were.
Over the years, the nonpartisan group has attracted the support of dozens more bands, which tweet out reminders that their supporters should vote with HeadCount's logo prominently displayed. However, the music industry, ever-fragmenting, has changed a lot since 2004, forcing HeadCount to rethink not only how they get bands to take part in the registration drives, but which bands they reach out to.
"I've been knocking down country's doors this year," Bernstein says. Left-leaning acts have been easy to enlist in HeadCount's efforts, he says. In 2014, he's made a concerted effort to get groups that lean the other way, or that have kept mum when it comes to politics.
Then there is the aforementioned Jay-Z affiliation. HeadCount volunteers attended stops on the rapper's tours with Kanye West and Beyonce. For the group's midterm-themed social media outreach, they enlisted Fergie, 50 Cent and Linkin Park. There are the countless partnerships with the usual suspects -- Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, The Decemberists, the Shins, so on and so forth.
One memorable concert for Reed, who spends his days working at the Environmental Protection Agency and has been with HeadCount since 2010, was a stop on the Nine Inch Nails tour, where he was surprised to see how many people visited the table. Dads stopped by to update their registration, and the kids they brought along were registering for the first time.
Melissa Brennan, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park, has been volunteering with HeadCount for six years, and usually attends around 30 concerts a year. She has seen Beyoncé, Jason Mraz and the tUnE-yArDs this year. She doesn't just volunteer for the chance to see her favorite acts — hearing one or two people per show say "thank you" for reminding them to register is nice too. When she arrives at the 9:30 Club for an event, Brennan pulls out two clipboards and two pens, and reminds her fellow volunteers — for some concerts, so many people offer to help that she needs to turn people away — to double-check that those they sign up don't accidentally put "2014" as their birth year. HeadCounters also ask concertgoers if they've moved since the last election. Many young people hop from place to place between election cycles, and don't realize they have to re-register each time, a perhaps significant reason why it's so hard to get young people to vote. Brennan says she sometimes sees repeat visitors, who remember HeadCount from the last time they registered a few years back.
Bernstein notes that when it comes to engagement, indie bands tend to have more rabid followings, which is why HeadCount loves working with them. But it's been nice to get some of the massive social media reach of the bigger stars, he'll admit. The Twitter feed for the Disco Biscuits — whose bassist founded HeadCount with Bernstein — has more than 21,000 followers. Mary J. Blige, one of the bigger artists HeadCount partnered with this year, has more than 5 million.
Branching out beyond indie rock and jam bands has paid off -- they've registered more than 26,000 people at concerts and festivals and online this year, nearly 12,000 more than they registered in 2010. The group's volunteers are spread out across 35 cities, and they've been to 681 live events this year. They've had more than 25,000 people pledge to vote this year.
Unsurprisingly, HeadCount has way more luck signing people up during presidential elections. In 2012, they registered more than 111,000 people.
Hence their massive ramp-up this year. They aren't thinking about preparing for 2016; Bernstein and Co. are determined to get young people interested in the midterms, a task that requires an insane amount of effort for the measliest change in the status quo. In 2008, nearly 49 percent of Americans age 18 to 24 turned out to vote, according to the the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. In 2010, about 21 percent of young Americans voted. The biggest drop-off was among twentysomethings with Bachelors degrees.
HeadCount isn't alone in targeting this potentially powerful, ever unrealized, demographic. There are more than 80 organizations focused on getting young voters to turnout, throwing memes here and there, hoping one will stick. You've seen the videos. Rock the Vote got Lil Jon to make "Turn Down for What" jokes.
OurTime.org (not OurTime.com, the over-50s dating site, its organizers stress) has enlisted George Takei and Sarah Silverman.
Although HeadCount's heart has always been with sending volunteers to shows for free to do the grunt work of registering voters, they're in the viral game too. More than 300 artists and celebrities will be tweeting photos and putting up Facebook posts asking young people to #GoVote. The photos include a link to HeadCount's Web site, which features information on ID requirements — many states do not consider student IDs valid identification — and polling locations.
They also aren't expecting a miracle in 2014 — HeadCount's volunteers know that they won't inspire a massive uptick in voting from their peers, but they think even small gains are worth the effort.
It's especially hard to get young people to care about races they haven't been paying attention to — which often includes everything besides presidential elections.
Volunteers working tables at the 9:30 Club know that most concert attendees don't care about the mayoral race -- and likely can't be convinced to care. So the volunteers bring up Initiative 71, which would decriminalize marijuana use in the District. "When social issues are on the ballot," says Reed, "that definitely makes people pay attention."
HeadCount has had a residency at the 9:30 Club and Merriweather Post Pavilion for about four years; if there's an event HeadCount would like to set up a table at, they contact the club and the band to get approval, and it's a go. "Everybody would agree that it would be great if more people voted," said Donna Westmoreland, chief operating officer of I.M.P. — the music venues' parent company. When asked if HeadCount's efforts are working, she said, "Well, they keep coming back."
This post has been updated.