A Rising HeadCount
It's not surprising to interview Andy Bernstein as he's driving to a destination. The HeadCount co-founder has spent much of 2008 traveling from one city to another in an effort to surpass the non-profit, non-partisan group's previous voter registration numbers.
Today, it's noticeable, even on the phone, that he is beaming. His birthday is coming up, which he'll celebrate by attending a Perpetual Groove show in Virginia Beach. Most importantly for him, at this moment he believes that HeadCount will double the numbers of registered voters from when the organization originally surfaced in 2004.
"I'm so pleased with how this year went. I've been happy all year, but I've got to tell you, where we sit right now, today, I've never been happier. I'm very confident we're going to hit our goal, which is 100,000 voters [from concerts and online registrations]. That wasn't a given. It took everything we had. To see that we're going to get there is a really, really good feeling and very, very much a testament to our volunteers."
At one point Bernstein apologizes for his numerous words of praise for this year's HeadCount volunteers. Early on he describes his view as "kind of a corny thing, but it's really true."
"These are all really special people who just worked their tails off, just got heavily involved in what we were doing and created an environment where you had total attention to detail. Everybody followed protocol, everybody got on the same page. That wasn't something that happened overnight."
He credited HeadCount's eight regional coordinators and a consistency and accountability that brought about a professional and more efficient work setting. Bernstein noted that despite the general perception the registration campaign was not filled with Obama-maniacs. "Every political ideology was represented in HeadCount."
His enthusiasm for the state of the 2008 registration campaign can be traced to HeadCount's origins — an antidote to the apathy that set in by U.S. citizens of voting age, particularly the many young voters who make up a large percentage of the jamband scene. As Bob Weir, a HeadCount Board Member, repeated numerous times in concert since 2004 and at the recent Change Rocks show at Penn State University, "If every Deadhead in Florida had voted, the world would be a different place."
Thinking about the upcoming presidential election in 2004, Bernstein, author of the Pharmer’s Almanac, discussed with Disco Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein what to do. They arrived at the idea of registering voters and encouraging them to take part in the process rather than standing on the sidelines as the world changed before their eyes.
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 allowed HeadCount volunteers to set up a table at their shows. Festivals such as Bonnaroo and High Sierra also invited the new organization to seek out new voters. Michael Kang and Warren Haynes participated in registration drives while Weir, Sam Bush and Galactic, among others, made audio and video public service announcements.
"That was a big difference between '04 and '08. The whole atmosphere. Not that we didn't have our shit together in '04, but what I remember in '04 is like…picture leaks coming through the bottom of a boat and you fill one up and another one sprang. And we got it done, and we kept the boat floating.
"In 2008, the boat was pretty damn secure. The boat did not spring a lot of leaks and because of that we were able to really focus on the Big Picture of what we needed to do."
Bernstein admitted that that initial registration endeavor was exhausting, and like similar organizations HeadCount lay dormant following the final tally of the Electoral College. He cited an inspiring email from a volunteer saying, "Something this magical can't die," among the reasons that HeadCount resurfaced for the 2006 midterm elections which dealt with numerous races at the federal, state and local levels.
During an interview with him at that time he said, "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 or in Governors offices… So, there's a real call to action."
The organization took matters a step further by supplying information on candidates running in each state.
The current HeadCount website, www.headcount.org, provides links state election websites, deadlines, absentee information and more.
"The formula isn't just us doing it alone. The formula is thousands of hours of all pure labor. Hopefully, some clever organizing on our part, but the essential ingredient is the bands and all these music industry partners. And we got support at the highest level. I really couldn't be happier."
Unlike past drives, HeadCount's status became prominent enough that it attracted artists beyond the jamband scene without damaging its roots.
"We put together a list over a year ago of bands we really wanted to work with and the three top ones on that list were Jack Johnson, Pearl Jam and John Mayer. These were the ones to go to the next level. We not only ended up working with those bands, but touring with them. And that was on their dime. They covered the expenses.
"We also added three key relationships — My Morning Jacket, Death Cab for Cutie and Wilco — and have done extensive things with each of those bands."
O.A.R. also became one of the participating artists during the 2008 campaign, allowing volunteers to set up throughout the band's summer tour. Marc Roberge responded to email questions on the association.
"The volunteers from HeadCount and people who made this happen, logistically, everyday from our crew and theirs deserve recognition for their drive,” Roberge explained. "Being involved with the effort was a no-brainer. It is the absolute least we could do with such an important election at hand. There were times we felt discouraged by some small registration numbers at a few shows, but I got the general feeling from our travels this year that the audience is aware what an important time this is in our country's history. I know I have personally found a need to pay much closer attention to politics and the weight of my one vote. We can only hope we were able to help HeadCount achieve their goal."
Not only did artists allow HeadCount volunteers to be present at shows, more than two dozen festivals and promoters including Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Live Nation and AEG Live provided space for registering. Musicians and promoters raised over $200,000. That final figure included the Dave Matthews Band and $50,000 from its Bama Works Foundation, personal donations from Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart, O.A.R.'s tickets auctions, a moe. benefit and donations from a portion of album sales and Jack Johnson's arrangement with Patagonia. In addition, the Cents for Sense program raised money through a 50 cent surcharge on tickets for shows by Sound Tribe Sector Nine, Allman Brothers Band, Bob Weir & RatDog, Gov't Mule, The Disco Biscuits, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Umphrey's McGee, Medeski Martin & Wood and Ryan Montbleau Band and at festivals — All Good, Summer Camp, Mountain Jam, High Sierra, Gathering of the Vibes and Camp Bisco.
Last month HeadCount partnered with MySpace and four other voter registration and civic groups — Declare Yourself, Student PIRGs, Rock the Vote and Why Tuesday? — for the Ultimate College Bowl. The national contest awarded scholarships and a free concert with Death Cab for Cutie to the students and school that registered the most students.
Now that Bernstein has made strides in making HeadCount a smoother-running voter registration organization, it's time to move to the next logical step — get out the vote. He credits many of the bands involved for using their email lists to remind fans to make it to the polls on Nov. 4. Many states also have early voting.
For those who need additional information on polling location or if they are registration is challenged, call the toll free Election Protection Hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
With such strong numbers for the 2008 registration drive, Bernstein has high hopes that it will lead to an equally strong turnout. "I really believe that the live music scene, our community, is going to come out big time. I feel it. I feel that this group of people, let's call it a million people, the kind of people that go to Bonnaroo or the kind of people that go to concert shows, we're going to be there at the polls.
"Everybody's feeling the energy. Everybody's feeling how committed the artists are to it. I just have an extreme level of confidence. With the right messaging, the right team work that this little world of ours is going to make our voice heard on November 4."
HeadCount presents a "Get Out and Vote Party" with Robert Randolph, ?uestlove (The Roots) and Stanton Moore (Galactic) on Election Eve (Nov. 3) at the Highline Ballroom in New York. It will be streamed live on www.iClips.net.
Also appearing will be Joe Russo and Marco Benevento of The Duo, Chris Barron of The Spin Doctors, Dave Dreiwitz of Ween, Reid Genauer of Assembly of Dust, Tom Hamilton and Scott Metzger of American Babies and Aron Magner and Marc Brownstein of The Disco Biscuits.
Multi-platinum soul singer Joss Stone joins the line up and will perform her new song "Governmentalist," her response to criticism she received from a U.K. government official after she spoke out against the poor medical care of Iraq War veterans. The song is available for free download at www.HeadCount.org.
Although the 21-year-old British citizen is unable to vote in this country, she wanted to join others her age who have become more politically active.
In a press statement she said, "The U.S. election really does impact the entire world. While I can't vote in this country, I want to do what I can to inspire others, especially young voters, to make their voices heard. I can't think of a better way to release 'Governmentalist' than to partner with a group like HeadCount that actively encourages voting."
For more information on "Get Out and Vote Party," go to www.magichat.net/participation. There will also be an entry form to win a trip for four to New York with VIP tickets to the concert. Absentee ballot applications can also be accessed from that site with HeadCount reminding anyone attending the concert from out-of-town to fill out an absentee ballot in advance.