How HeadCount Gets the Next Generation Hyped for Democracy

By Charlotte Frankel

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How do you get young people excited to take part in democracy? Ask HeadCount. Since 2004, the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has registered over 500,000 people to vote. They've partnered with artists from Sia to J. Cole to Vampire Weekend on concert activations, public service announcements on network TV and award-winning digital media campaigns. And this year, with HeadCount's help, audiences at the Del Close Marathon were able to register to vote digitally through the DCM App.

We talked with HeadCount Director of Communications Aaron Ghitelman to get ourselves hyped about democracy's past, present and future.

How did HeadCount get started?

HeadCount was founded in 2004 as a joint venture by the two co-founders Andy Bernstein and Marc Brownstein. In 2003, Andy was a sports writer who got upset by what America was doing at Guantanamo Bay. He said to himself, “Man somebody should do something!” And then he realized that he could do something.

Andy was, and is, very deeply connected with the music scene in New York and is close friends with Marc Brownstein, the bassist for the band The Disco Biscuits. They got to talking, and Marc was very in on the idea.

Another factor was the 2000 presidential election, and the fact that it was decided by a couple hundred votes in Florida. At any given Disco Biscuits show, there were more fans at the concert than the difference between the two candidates. Any band -- really anyone with an audience, has the ability to affect an election and really affect the course of history.

Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead was also pretty instrumental in the beginning, wasn't he?

Yes, Bob has been with HeadCount since we started in 2004, and he is just incredibly supportive. I really admire him. Another guy who has supported us, which is equally humbling, is Mike Birbiglia, and he was the one who reached out to us. He actually befriend us on Twitter and said, hey, how can I get involved? And it was just really cool to see that happen and to form a partnership with him.

So you guys are now moving beyond music into comedy.

Yes, and it’s something we’ve been doing for a little while. We did some Michael Ian Black shows. We did some Chelsea Handler shows, and we did a Lewis Black tour. We’re also working very closely in the Atlanta midterm elections with Billy Eichner and Funny or Die’s Glam Up the Midterms, which is another great thing that helps raise awareness for voting.


How can comedy can be further used as a successful tool to encourage voter registration?

I think if you look at the history of comedy in America, it's always been political in many ways. Comedy has always just been a great way to get people involved and to get people active. It’s like music, or really any type of entertainment. Anyone who has a podium can use that podium, can use that voice, to affect the world in any way they want to.

What would you say is the best strategy for encouraging on people to vote?

So much of the political world is about asking people for support -- or money -- and to take an action that is partisan. Instead, we just go at it from a clean slate and tell people that we don’t really care who you vote for, just that you do vote, which we’ve found to be very effective. It’s not just about the politicians; it’s about the voters and what they care about.

So what’s your sense of the political engagement of this generation of young people?

Young people want to hear about the issues that they care about. If politicians got up there and talked about Juuling (kind of an intensified vaping) and talked about policy towards that, you'll have eighteen-year-olds who turn up to vote. But right now we have politicians who cater to an audience of older Americans because they believe that older people are the only ones who vote, and that is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we talk about issues that matter to young people, they’ll be much more engaged.

Millennials are voting in higher rates than we think, and we’re hoping to continue that trend upwards. A good way for this to continue is to talk to people and try and get them involved, but the best way is to get politicians to talk about issues that are affecting young people.

Is there any single event you can cite as your most successful?

Well, we did March for Our Lives, which is outside of the entertainment sphere, but we registered over 5,000 people to vote across the country in a single day. Numerically, that is definitely our most successful event. We also did Bonnaroo in 2016 and registered over 1,300 voters, which was our single most successful weekend. The festival has such a good vibe, and we’ll be back there this year. Bonnaroo is all about community.

It also has the dual comedy and music aspect to it.

Yes, and that’s great. We also have incredible volunteers helping us out. Like, those numbers didn’t manifest themselves. It was all because of our volunteers. But the festival community is also similar to improv, because when you go to an improv show, you’re going to be open and ready to interact with people and listen to someone who asks you to do something, even if it’s not directly what you showed up for.

What is it that you’re most proud of about HeadCount, and what do you think the future of the organization is?

What I’m most proud of is our volunteers and the way they are just leaders in their communities. I mean, this is my full-time job, but the volunteers have other full-time jobs on top of this, and it’s so humbling to work with people who care this much and are able to do this. Every time I get tired or rundown, the solution is always to go out into the field and work with our volunteers to register voters.

I think our goal for the future is to have systems in place so HeadCount won't have to exist, or at least that our voter registration aspect doesn’t have to exist. I think the future is figuring out a way in which every state can have automatic voter registration, so that HeadCount will be at festivals and concerts and can organize and talk about elections.

We're going to be registering a ton of voters in 2020 will probably be registering a ton of voters in 2022. But every year of participation, we keep growing, and I think that the general thought is that it’s a good move to have states implement an automatic voter registration system. Hopefully, we’ll replace our registration role with one as a social activism organizing group that makes it easy for people to make change and fight for the change they believe in at concerts and festivals and comedy events -- wherever we get invited.

Charlotte Frankel is an improviser and an intern at UCB. She attends Middlebury College.