Group That Recruits Rocking Voters Moves Into Political Action

NEW YORK - MARCH 15: Trey Anastasio and Phish onstage at the 25th Annual Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria on March 15, 2010 in New York City.
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
March 25, 2014, 5:05 p.m.

If you want to know the secret to mo­tiv­at­ing young voters, mu­sic may be the an­swer. Meet Andy Bern­stein, co­chair­man and ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Head­Count, a group that re­gistered more than 103,000 voters at con­certs and mu­sic fest­ivals in 2012.

This week Head­Count an­nounced a stra­tegic part­ner­ship with iCit­izen, an app for mo­bile devices that al­lows users to skim policy-re­lated news cov­er­age and track the vot­ing re­cords of their elec­ted of­fi­cials.

In the com­ing year, the two or­gan­iz­a­tions will set up “a co-branded event oas­is” at hun­dreds of con­certs and ma­jor mu­sic fest­ivals. These pa­vil­ions — out­fit­ted with char­ging sta­tions, com­fort­able seat­ing, and Wi-Fi con­nectiv­ity — are de­signed to en­tice young people in­to the polit­ic­al mi­lieu. “It’s all about get­ting them re­gistered,” Bern­stein said.

Andy Bern­stein (Photo Cour­tesy of Andy Bern­stein)Ac­cord­ing to com­pany lore, Head­Count star­ted with a rant from its gregari­ous ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or about Guantanamo Bay.

“It began on a whim,” said Bern­stein, a former writer for Sports­Busi­ness Journ­al. “In late 2003, I was in­ter­view­ing [an ES­PN re­port­er] when he made an off­han­ded polit­ic­al re­mark, which promp­ted me to make an off­han­ded polit­ic­al re­mark. Be­fore I knew it, we were hav­ing a spir­ited con­ver­sa­tion about civil liber­ties.”¦ I put the phone down, and I said to my­self, “˜I’ve got to stop com­plain­ing, and I’ve got to do something.’ “

Bern­stein, an aco­lyte of the band Phish and coau­thor of the 1998 com­pen­di­um to the group called The Pharm­er’s Al­man­ac, dashed off an email to Marc Brown­stein, bassist for the Disco Bis­cuits, and the two de­cided to start a voter-re­gis­tra­tion cam­paign for con­cer­t­go­ers.

“Between my con­tacts and Marc’s con­tacts, we were able to put to­geth­er a board of dir­ect­ors,” Bern­stein said. “By early 2004, people star­ted com­ing out of the wood­work and ask­ing how they could get in­volved.

“To this day, I can’t be­lieve how fast we moved. By April 2004, we were re­gis­ter­ing voters at 25 con­certs a week. Throughout it all, the concept nev­er changed: We would set up card tables at con­certs and build a com­munity with­in a com­munity.”

Fast for­ward to 2012. Dur­ing the last elec­tion cycle, Head­Count re­gistered more than 100,000 voters. Like con­cer­t­go­ers in gen­er­al, these newly min­ted voters skewed to­ward a young­er demo­graph­ic: 44 per­cent of them were un­der the age of 24 and 65 per­cent un­der the age of 29.

Last year, Head­Count de­b­uted #Soun­dOff, a mo­bile-friendly Web plat­form that al­lows users to tweet to mem­bers of Con­gress. “We really be­lieve that to en­gage young Amer­ic­ans, you have to be on the cut­ting edge of tech­no­logy, and you have to make it really easy and con­veni­ent,” Bern­stein said. “We’re in an era where everything has be­come one click and one touch.”

Today, Head­Count col­lab­or­ates with an ec­lect­ic ar­ray of artists — from Phish and the Dave Mat­thews Band to Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, and the Roots — and ex­pects to be present at more than 500 con­certs in the year to come. It has also formed al­li­ances with pro­gress­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions like GLAAD and the NAACP, al­though Bern­stein in­sists that Head­Count is res­ol­utely non­par­tis­an.

“From the be­gin­ning, we wanted Head­Count to be neither Demo­crat­ic nor Re­pub­lic­an,” he said. “Voter re­gis­tra­tion should be something that every­body, or nearly every­body, can get be­hind.”

The iCit­izen app, which em­bod­ies a min­im­al­ist aes­thet­ic, is “something new and fresh to make voter re­gis­tra­tion sexy,” he ad­ded. The iPhone ver­sion of iCit­izen was in­tro­duced in Novem­ber, and the An­droid ver­sion will be re­leased at the end of this month. It is ori­ented around 18 policy areas, from the budget to wo­men’s rights to the en­vir­on­ment.

“Our part­ner­ship with Head­Count gives us the op­por­tun­ity to ap­ply tech­no­logy to the voter-re­gis­tra­tion pro­cess,” said Rod Mas­sey, CEO of Cit­iz­en­gine and one of the app’s ar­chi­tects. “iCit­izen al­lows you to find out eas­ily who your elec­ted of­fi­cials are and what they’re do­ing in your name.”

A nat­ive of Brook­lyn, N.Y., Bern­stein stud­ied mod­ern cul­ture and me­dia at Brown Uni­versity, where he called hockey games for the Brown Bears. He then spent 11 years as a sports journ­al­ist be­fore that fate­ful con­ver­sa­tion with the ES­PN re­port­er. “I had this ca­reer that was com­pletely sep­ar­ate from what I’m do­ing now,” he said. “I had no de­sire to get in­to polit­ics.”

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