How Music Is Leading Americans to the Polls

Briana Bonfiglio
Oct 29 · 6 min read

HeadCount makes political participation cool again

All photos courtesy of HeadCount

“Music and volunteerism” was among Morgan Howard’s first Google searches when she moved to New York City in 2016. The lifelong singer, who grew up doing community service in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, hoped to find fulfilling volunteer work that married her two passions.

Plenty of results appeared, but one organization called to her: HeadCount. She scrolled through the organization’s bold-yet-sleek website, which is full of information about voter registration, activism, and volunteering at concerts.

“I didn’t know what I would find,” she said. “I never knew anything like this existed, I thought maybe I’d volunteer as a [concert] usher or something. But music is always my number one in life, I just can’t get by without it.”

Steering clear of party lines

When Howard learned that HeadCount is a non-partisan activist organization, “everything added up.” After just a month living in New York City, she was volunteering with HeadCount, approaching strangers at concerts, asking, “Are you registered to vote?”

At a Cage the Elephant gig in August, a HeadCount volunteer approached me and my partner with that same question. Enthusiastically, we both shouted, “Hell yeah!” and went on our way — but not before I caught a glimpse of the woman’s clipboard that bore HeadCount’s logo.

Morgan Howard, above, is a team leader for HeadCount in New York.

I’d seen people registering voters at concerts before, but I never gave much thought to the organizations that fuel them until that moment. Instantly, I was intrigued because I know music and culture can be integral to social change, and this seemed to be a big part of that.

A couple weeks later, I spoke with HeadCount founder Andy Bernstein. He told me a bit about HeadCount’s roots in live, jam band music and how volunteers feel strongly about remaining non-partisan to foster more excitement in the political process.

I asked the obvious question: How does HeadCount maintain its non-partisanship in such a biting political culture, especially since the 2016 presidential election?

“I get asked that all the time, and I don’t find it difficult because I understand how important it is,” Bernstein said. “So much partisan rhetoric is out there; the world doesn’t need more of it.

“For us, it’s whatever you believe, as long as you believe in something and engage in it.”

The excitement, then, doesn’t come from buzz words or a single issue to rally behind. It comes from the music.

Leading the movement with music

Since forming in 2004, HeadCount has registered more than 600,000 voters. In the beginning, bands such as Phish, Dave Matthews Band, and The Grateful Dead all got behind the effort. Now, the organization partners with musicians of all genres, from Ariana Grande and Rihanna to Paramore and Maggie Rogers.

“Musicians are natural leaders,” Bernstein said. “They are people who drive culture and can drive awareness. They have large social media followings, and their fans are a community. What we do is community organizing, but instead of geographic community, it’s individual fan bases.”

Bernstein noted that, when he started HeadCount, he brought on music groups like Dave Matthews Band that have close-knit fan bases. The fans communicate through online forums and Facebook groups. They meet up at shows. Ultimately, they form a community based on a shared love of the music. HeadCount’s goal was to bring them together around democracy, too.

Andy Bernstein, left, is the co-founder and president of HeadCount, a non-partisan organization that channels the power of live music to register voters and get them to the polls.

Bernstein added that this is true especially for bands that tour and emphasize a strong connectedness at live shows. HeadCount registers the most voters at concerts that exhibit this unity. For example, in 2018, HeadCount registered 3,551 voters at the Vans Warped Tour, 1,015 at Panic! At the Disco shows, and 850 on Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s tour — all performances with super-passionate followings.

Researchers of social movements and thought leaders have confirmed the phenomena that musicians help drive social action. I was struck by a recent talk given by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, author of What Truth Sounds Like, at SUNY Old Westbury. While he related this to civil rights and black identity in America, it can really relate to any type of movement, even one for exercising the basic right of democracy.

“Social and political responsibility was not [and is not] solely the problem of figures and activists,” he said. “Artists are extremely vital and necessary in communicating the message that the world will listen to.”

Democracy in action

Howard first applied to volunteer at the Roots Picnic in New York with HeadCount. She signed up via the HeadCount website and didn’t think they’d choose her, given there are many applicants. But after another volunteer dropped out, she got a last-minute call to jump in. That call changed her life — she soon became a team leader with the organization and found a dedicated, music-loving community in this new city.

As a team leader, Howard now chooses which events HeadCount will attend in the New York area. She brings on volunteers, makes sure there is a space for them at the venue, and attends as many shows as she can. Plus, when HeadCount travels to festivals, she often goes along. “I’m always jumping at the chance to do everything they need,” she says.

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She shares that passion with more than 130 team leaders, who all volunteer their time, across the country. When leaders and teams approach concert-goers, they’re often rejected, but they keep speaking, keep asking, and it’s all worth it when people begin to take the bait.

Once they do get a person registered, they sign that person up for TurboVote. After all, completing a voter registration form is half the work. Now they have to get the people voting. TurboVote is a texting service that reminds voters about local elections and directs them to information about their polling place. (You can text VOTER to 40649 to sign up! It’s that easy.)

In addition, HeadCount has begun hosting activism villages at festivals called “Participation Row.” A bunch of non-profit organizations table at them and share information about their causes. “Beyond voting, there’s a bunch of things you can do to stay active,” Bernstein said. “It’s not just about voting but knowing what’s worth voting for. We give people the opportunity to engage with various organizations and various causes.”

Sometimes artists get involved by signing merchandise that’s auctioned off to raise money, either for HeadCount or another organization. Or, the artist will stand up on stage and encourage people to vote.

“I think there’s always been a level of awareness in the music scene,” Howard said. “It really comes from the artists deciding that they want to use their platform for something that matters to them and their audience.”

Some artists will have HeadCount along with them for their nationwide tour. When HeadCount partnered with Ariana Grande earlier this year, it made headlines.

HeadCount isn’t the only group doing this type of work — there’s Rock the Vote, which started in 1990 and focuses on mobilizing young voters, and actually powers the voter registration form on HeadCount’s website. There’s websites like vote.org and votolatino.org, all aimed at educating the public and increasing voter turnout in an unbiased way.

There are also individual efforts by artists. About a year ago, I attended a show by comedian Mike Birbiglia, and the whole line-up centered on getting college students to the polls. It was called “Stand Up and Vote.”

“Research three or four issues that you care about and find out where your local candidates stand on those issues,” he told students that night at Hofstra University. “Health care. National parks. Public schools. Whatever you care about. And pull the lever. That’s enough. I don’t know who you should vote for, but I know this:

“You’re voting for the country you want to live in. Not today or tomorrow or even in the next few months. You will vote for the country you will live in when you’re 40. When you’re my age. I’m writing to you from the future.”

Like live music, comedy shows have a unifying and clever way of getting folks behind participating in democracy. The process begins face-to-face, sharing a love of art and culture with others, and it continues successfully when that large group of individuals show up to the polls in masses, in their respective areas, to cast their ballots for what they believe in.

Briana Bonfiglio

Written by

Reporter & Writer | SUNY New Paltz ’18 | Here you’ll find: Words about music and activism and what happens when they come together, plus other musings of mine.

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