WASHINGTON — In the 2008 U.S. elections, more than 15 million new voters went to the polls. One-hundred-thousand of them were registered at concerts by HeadCount, a group that promotes civic involvement. This year, HeadCount is back on the road with musicians, hoping to register tens of thousands of new voters, especially young adults. Organizers discussed the initiative at a Wilco concert at Wolf Trap Park for the Performing Arts outside Washington.
The band Wilco, led by singer Jeff Tweedy, has a large and faithful following.
“We feel very fortunate to be in a position where we can lend whatever credibility or celebrity we might have to encourage people to vote and register,” said Tweedy.
That’s why Wilco joined forces with HeadCount. The non-profit, non-partisan organization has been on the road with Wilco this summer, greeting concertgoers as they arrive, with an important question.
“You guys all registered to vote at your current address?” asks Andy Bernstein, president of HeadCount, which he co-founded in 2004.
“It is not about getting someone to sign a piece of paper. What we are really trying to do is create a culture, where people vote, where people make their voices heard, where people feel invested,” said Bernstein.
And it’s about the volunteers, 8,000 of them, nationwide… including Julie Whelan.
"Thank you. You will be getting a voter registration card in the mail in four to six weeks," she told one group.
“I think what is really wonderful and unique about HeadCount is that it is non-partisan,” said Whelan.
“If you would like to vote in the primaries, you can put what party you would like to register with, otherwise leave it blank,” she told another gathering.
“Anybody need to register to vote or update their voter registration?” Bernstein asks a crowd.
“All good, but thank you for being here,” replied one man.
“Keep up the good work,” said another.
Here at Wolf Trap, in the Washington suburbs, with a slightly older crowd, Bernstein finds a lot of concert-goers are already registered, but they give him a “thumbs up” sign of support as they pass by.
“A Wilco show is an exercise in persistence and patience, because most people are registered at a Wilco show," said Bernstein. "When we are at a show with a younger demographic, like a Dave Matthews show, it is very common that we will register 200 people.””
In its first year, HeadCount registered close to 50,000 voters. Four years later, in 2008, they registered twice as many. This year, HeadCount hopes to register at least 100,000 again, at about 1,000 concerts.
More than 100 musicians have partnered with the group. Wilco and Tweedy have been with them since 2004.
“Our goal is to remind people that it is not that hard to participate and engage in an election. Look at new democracies and it is pretty easy to see how important it is to people to have that right,” said Tweedy.
Tweedy said he didn’t always appreciate that right, especially when he was younger.
"A lot of the musicians I actually liked at the time were unfortunately, were pretty, alienated and disillusioned, maybe even disenfranchised, and that didn’t help anything, that didn’t exactly provide a role model of participation,” said Tweedy.
He is glad HeadCount gives him the chance to be a better role model.