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Midterms Matter for Andy Bernstein and HeadCount

Not taking the time to get even slightly involved in the political process by casting a vote for or against a candidate or a proposition is like a concert with an unresponsive audience. You end up with an onstage performance featuring a group of musicians doing strictly what it wants, with no consideration to please those in front of the stage.

In fact, paying attention to and making your voice heard among elected officials at the federal, state and local levels is much more important than knowing the setlist from a 1998 Phish show or any other jamband, because it truly affects your life on a daily basis.

Realizing that apathy towards politics can be a dangerous thing, Andy Bernstein, co-founder of the Pharmer’s Almanac, and Marc Brownstein of Disco Biscuits started HeadCount back in 2004. The purpose was simple – register voters.

Bernstein recalled that time as he was driving to First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park, Illinois, site of a Dave Matthews Band concert, and the final stop on this year’s HeadCount Midterms Matter Tour registration drive.

“I think a lot of people were asking themselves what they could do to get involved, and I was asked myself that question and so was Marc Brownstein. We came up with the idea for HeadCount and put things together very quickly in a very large scale in 2004.

It received an immediate shot in the arm with some of the jamband scene’s biggest acts including The Dead, Phish, Dave Matthews Band, String Cheese Incident, Gov't Mule, moe., The Disco Biscuits and Galactic as well as at festivals such as Bonnaroo and High Sierra inviting the newly minted organization to set up at concerts. Also, public service announcements were made by members of many of the same bands, which stressed the importance of registering and voting.

Bob Weir sits on the Board of Directors as well as Al Schnier of moe. and Vince Herman. DMB donated $15,000 in 2004 and again this year.

“The artists are very personally active. One of the things we did this year was a lot of artist appearances at our booths. Warren Haynes did it. Bela Fleck did it. Mike Gordon.”

As for co-founder Brownstein, “We do a weekly conference call every week. Marc and I probably talk three or four times a week and HeadCount is always part of the conversation.

The efforts of that initial effort resulted in nearly 49,000 new voters.

Despite the excitement of how much was accomplished, HeadCount, like other voter registration organizations geared towards youth disappeared from public view shortly after the final electoral votes were counted.

“I would say we were absolutely exhausted. It was like a sprint to the finish line. We had to assess what did we have? It took us awhile but we eventually got to a point where we said, 'You know? We have something really special here.' I remember an email that I got in February of this year where somebody who was a volunteer in 2004 said, 'Something this magical can't die.' It really hit home with me. I felt like everybody involved in the organization, our work just wasn't done.”

What also stirred Bernstein into resurrecting HeadCount is the fact that midterm elections are no less important than a year that includes a presidential election.

“If anything it's more important. Midterm elections, there's much more of a drop off in participation among young people than older people and that inherently skews the results. And it means that, young people, our interests are not being represented in Congress in Governors offices. So, there's a real call to action.”

Taking matters a step further than last time, HeadCount supplied information on candidates running in each state. It also plans to have a “very large presence” at the upcoming Vegoose music festival in Las Vegas, which runs from Oct. 27 through 31.
Unlike two years ago, HeadCount hasn’t taken a rest since that last DMB date. Bernstein said there are plans to stay active all the way up to the Nov. 7 election. That includes having a number of the participating musicians take part in sending two email reminders to the new voters.

“We think it'll be very powerful,” said Bernstein.

Since the jamband scene is not looked upon as a major source for conservative thought, it wasn’t difficult for some to view HeadCount as encouraging one type of voter over another.

“It's something that we get asked about from time to time,” admitted Bernstein. “I don't think it's a problem at all. Clearly, the audience we reach is the same audience that reads Relix, the same that reads Jambands, and I think some people make assumptions about the politics of that audience. But, a very large percentage of our registrations come from the Dave Mathews Band shows. You can throw the assumptions out the window. I can assure you we've never said, 'Let's not do a DMB show because we're going to get different kinds of people there.' We're all about registering voters.

“The way the organization functions is in a very non-partisan way. Something that I'm not afraid to say is that HeadCount, as an organization, and the people involved have very strong values about some very core things that we believe in and one of them is participation. If some people associate that with progressiveness, so be it. But we believe in a very strong way that everyone should participate in the process. So, there is a message to our organization. We're not just throwing out paper work. We're really trying to tell people that we, as a community, should be active and we should have our voice heard.”

With all the work that’s been done this year, it’s possible that HeadCount could become more than a tool for voter registration. Similar to other grassroots organizations, politicians pay better attention when confronted by a united group of citizens.

“It's something that I've been thinking about a lot. That's the kind of thing that we're still figuring out and at the right time we'll figure out. But I can tell you there's one thing that we're already determined about our future, and that's what we aim to do is not just a voter registration organization, but what I call the community-organizing arm of the live music scene.

If somebody goes to a concert right now, if they're politically minded, socially conscious, there isn't really an outlet for them. What we want to do is use concerts as a gathering point for people like that, to bring together like-minded people and then support action in communities around very basic social justice principles.”

He brings up two possible examples that could use HeadCount as a more than a registration tool – organizing a protest of a factory that’s polluting or doing a letter writing campaign to encourage more voting machines for precincts that are plagued by long lines that end up discouraging turnout.

“That's the kind of thing that we can do that fits in with our “non-partisan mission. We're not getting behind an individual politician, but it's a very important future extension of what I think we can become.

“There is precedent for that. There are a lot of organizations that are politically non-partisan but are very, very active on certain issues or just holding government accountable. Holding government accountable goes across party lines and that's something that we, as an organization, want to be a part of.”

While he may be exhausted after putting together last summer’s round of HeadCount activities, which included booths at Bonnaroo, Wakarusa, 10,000 Lakes, All Good, Camp Bisco V and concerts by Phil Lesh & Friends and Trey Anastasio, Bernstein is clearly satisfied with what’s been accomplished.

“This year, we’re thinking long term and trying to build a bigger organization for the future. So, we were very focused on the quality of what we were doing. Build the core teams up.”

Most importantly, the organization met its goal of signing up 5,000 people.

“We were paying a lot of attention to efficiency, keeping our dollars spent very low so that we could go in the future to foundations and things like that and show that we're one of the most efficient voter registration groups out there.”

But, unlike last time he’s already looking towards what can be done in the future to give HeadCount a bigger presence and a stronger influence.

“After this year, it's all about becoming a much larger organization in 2008. It means bringing in foundation support, potentially. Corporate support if it's the right form. Uncompromised. Planning. We'd love to do a big benefit concert in early '07 and kick things off with a bang.

“We need to be a much larger organization. HeadCount is run entirely by volunteers in all of our spare time. I think what the team has done this year is amazing considering that everybody's got to earn a living. I would hope at some point we'll have an Executive Director who can be completely focused on HeadCount. Maybe a few people can be focused on HeadCount because in the end you can only go so far without having that backbone. That's the goal and we'll start on that pretty quickly.”

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