By Adam Eichen and Phoebe Wong
When most older people hear electronic dance music (EDM), they think of reckless young people wasting their lives away on mindless indulgence, and to be honest, we were somewhat skeptical when Bassnectar invited us to run an election reform education program at his Labor Day weekend concerts, Bass Center XI, in Hampton, Virginia. But this unusual mix of party and advocacy turned out to be an eye-opening experience, and one of the most effective ways to engage young voters we’ve seen.
At a Bassnectar show, the music feels like a means to an end rather than an end in itself — the music is an instrument to build a community that shares the core values of self-care and social responsibility. Of course, everyone showed up for the music at night, but throughout the day, there were countless gatherings: yoga sessions, LGBTQ meetups, an off-site meeting to clean up a nearby beach. There was a school supply drive benefiting local schools. A non-profit group called To Write Love On Her Arms provided a safe space to talk about self-injury and suicide prevention. Students for Sensible Drug Policy were there to promote sane drug policies and offer guidances. At the booth next to us was HeadCount, a non-profit that has registered almost 500,000 concert goers and music fans to vote since 2004. And register voters they did (hundreds of them in just two days).
And there was us. We were there to help conduct a voting experiment. Few weeks earlier, Bassnectar held an online song election to let the fans pick a song for him to play at the Labor Day show (watch Lessig explains the song election process below). The choices were four of Bassnectar’s songs (Infrared, Leprechauns Arise, After Thought, Was Will Be), and “I Still Believe” by Ted Nugent.
But here’s the twist: The online song election counted votes using the Electoral College system. Just like for our presidential elections, votes from each state carried different voting strength, such that the song with the most votes won’t necessarily win the election. In the end, “I Still Believe” actually won under the Electoral College system, despite losing the popular vote (sounds familiar?).
Rather than subjecting the young fans to more injustice and disappointment, we held another election to show what a fairer election would look like. At the show, we set up an in-person polling booth where fans could recast their votes, but this time, using STAR (Score, Then Automatic Runoff) voting in which voters gave each song a score from 0 to 5, and the song with the highest total score would win.
And so they did — over 2,000 fans came to our booth to cast their ballot. And the winner, much to everyone’s excitement, was the song “Leprechauns Arise,” which won the highest score by a long shot. (We’re told that this song was really special because Bassnectar hadn’t played it live in the memory of the fan base). But before playing the winning song, Bassnectar teased the fans with a 30-second sample of Ted Nugent and explained to the packed stadium with over 10,000 fans why the Electoral College was unfair and undemocratic, and gave Equal Citizens and HeadCount a major shoutout for our efforts to reform it.
All this might sound silly on the surface, but our interactions with thousands of young voters during these two days provided us a valuable insight into the democracy reform movement. The most striking lesson we learned was that despite what the detractors suggest, voters are very receptive to alternative voting methods like STAR voting or ranked choice voting. Sure, it takes some work to explain the method, but with a little guidance, anyone — even young people who are getting ready to party — can understand it.
In fact, many said they’d prefer a more complicated but fair alternative voting method to a more simple but unfair method like our current winner-take-all system. A young woman from Michigan confessed to us that she voted for Jill Stein in 2016, but wouldn’t have done so had she known how that would affect the result in her state. Unprompted, she even apologized: “Forgive me. I was 18 and didn’t think through the consequences.” She said she would wholeheartedly support using ranked choice voting to allocate electoral votes in swing states, so that the spoiler effect won’t be an issue again in those states.
Not once did any of these young fans refuse to vote because they didn’t want to learn a new voting method, but many did walk away because they thought the whole voting exercise was rigged — that “I Still Believe” would be played no matter how many votes it received. It confirmed our belief that the biggest obstacle to reform is neither apathy nor opposition, but cynicism.
One particularly heart-wrenching moment reminded us that while we take voting rights for granted, our government can take away those rights easily. A young man struck up a conversation with us, lamenting that he wouldn’t be able to vote in the midterm because he had a prior felony conviction, even though he had served his time, and been living an upstanding life since. While some states never give the right to vote back to felons, many do. And this young man actually lives in a state that restores voting rights to felons — he had been given incorrect information. His joy was contagious when he learned that he could vote again. He even lingered at our booth to talk about the racist origins of felon disenfranchisement laws.
Democracy is a process that must be practiced. Many of those who voted in our booth had never voted before. Going through the motions of casting a ballot, and thinking through how to vote strategically, even for something as seemingly trivial as a song, is a form of civic engagement that could spur an educational moment.
We battled hours of holiday traffic to conduct this song election because we believe that in order for democracy reform to prevail, we need to stop talking to the same few crowds, preaching to the choir, or pretending that our op-eds are changing the minds of ordinary voters, most of whom don’t pay much attention to public policy debates. Our movement needs to learn how to make democracy reform a part of our national dialogue — not just among Washington insiders and advocacy organizations, but a dialogue that spans across demographics, infused in everyday life.
We came away from this experience feeling inspired and incredibly hopeful. There is something special about this younger generation — as demonstrated by the amazing Parkland students at March for Our Lives. They’re more social justice minded than the generations before; activism is in their DNA. And they clearly get it — they know that our current system is unfair, and they’re eager to change it. What we need now is to channel their attention and energy to the right places.
More importantly, we’re reminded that the democracy reform movement needs more boldness: we ought to take more risks and do more things outside of our comfort zone, so that we can innovate and build more broad-based support. As the saying goes: “Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.”
Adam Eichen is Equal Citizens’ Communications Strategist.
Phoebe Wong is Equal Citizens’ Executive Director.