Of all the issues currently threatening U.S. democracy, attacks on the voting system may be the most severe. Yet as the 2020 election showed, despite those threats, the system can still work — and the best thing people can do is, in order, vote, and get involved.
Leading the charge for the music industry for the past 18 years is HeadCount, the not-for-profit, non-partisan organization that you’ve probably seen at any number of concerts, registering voters at a table in the venue’s lobby or merch areas at festivals including Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and many more.
With support from Harry Styles, Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Panic! At The Disco, David Byrne, Anderson .Paak, Tinashe (pictured above), Bonnie Raitt, Dave Matthews Band, Dead & Company, Paramore and many more, the organization has registered more than 145,000 voters already this year — the most it has seen to date for a midterm election (the previous peak was 89,000), and has led hundreds of thousands of others to check their registration status. (Head here for information on the organization and volunteering.)
“We’re joined at the hip with the music industry,” says executive director Andrew Bernstein, pointing to board members including Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Brooklyn Bowl’s Peter Shapiro, Superfly’s Richard Goodstone, Red Light Management’s Patrick Jordan, AEG’s Don Strasburg and others, as well as new director of artist relations Lisa DeLuca, formerly of Epic Records. With a staff of around 30 people, HeadCount’s partners include Global Citizen, the NAACP, Black Votes Matter, Vote Riders, Vote With Pride and others, and it receives support from Live Nation, AEG, National Independent Venues Assn. and more. It’s expanding into the National Hockey League and other sports organizations.
Over the years, HeadCount has registered more than a million voters.
Ariana Grande says, “The candidates and measures being voted on for the midterm elections have the power to impact millions of lives – and impact issues like access to abortion care, how we respond to climate change, the rights of trans youth, and more. I encourage everyone to get ready for the upcoming elections by checking their voter registration status or registering to vote through resources like HeadCount. If all of us vote and encourage all of our loved ones to vote with us, we will truly be able to create a change.”
Holding it all together for HeadCount is executive director Andrew Bernstein, a founder of National Voter Registration Day who has produced nearly a dozen benefit concerts and live music events, and also helped create Dead & Company’s “Participation Row,” an activism village where concert attendees have taken over 100,000 socially-conscious actions while raising nearly $1.5 million for various music-industry charities.
Bernstein tells Variety that it is just as important for people to vote in midterms as it is in the presidential elections — especially with so many Congressional seats in play.
“In 2020 half of all young people in the U.S. voted — that’s a record in modern history,” he says. “But the overwhelming majority are not voting in midterms, so there’s a tremendous upside here: A lot of people who think they’re registered find out they’re actually not, and this offers them the opportunity.”
He admits that the country’s political polarization has posed some challenges for a non-partisan organization like HeadCount.
“Voter registration has become a partisan issue, which doesn’t help anybody,” he says. “We are bipartisan — we’re not on one side or the other — we’re for democracy, and we’re working to support fair, accessible and trustworthy elections. We train our volunteers to leave their political beliefs at the door — we’re all equal and want everyone to vote.”
He also says that the beliefs of many of the artists who support HeadCount can creat the impression that it’s a liberal organization. “We work with a lot of artists with strong political views and who are passionate about them, which is good,” he says. “We are sometimes expected to lean a certain way and make a stand — but that’s not what we do.”
Conversely, many artists are reluctant to get involved in politics at all, because music for many is an escape from the relentless worries of the world.
“Lots of artists want to get their fans out to vote, but don’t want to get into the partisan divide,” he says. “But it’s dangerous to assume that democracy will prevail — there are real systemic challenges to how elections work. The whole system is in jeopardy — fair elections take effort.”
That artist support can take a number of different forms, from a video shown before Harry Styles concerts to David Byrne giving a long speech about voting rights during his recent “American Utopia” Broadway show. While Styles’ audiences would seem to include thousands of potentially unregistered voters, wouldn’t Byrne largely be preaching to the converted?
But Bernstein says Byrne’s support “was a seismic event for us — every night, an audience was learning about HeadCount. He reaches parents and celebrities and other people, and it helps with familiarity. There are lots of ways to reach people, but the messenger matters — and being authenticated by an artist goes a long way and helps fans think of themselves as citizens.”
Yet there’s no question that young people are HeadCount’s main objective, and the volunteer programs are all-ages. “Even if people are registered, they can get involved,” he says. “It’s easy to volunteer: You get to see a free concert, it’s open to all ages, and you have the experience of individually registering voters and welcoming people into democracy. Some team leaders started as volunteers and have stayed with us for years.”
And as bleak as things might have seemed for democracy in recent years, Bernstein and others at HeadCount definitely see the glass as half full.
“I am optimistic,” he says, “because young people’s turnout is historically high, and it becomes habit-forming. We share with artists the deep belief that citizenship is the way toward positive change.”