Summer music festival season is officially over, but Jane Henderson, 24, has more to show for it than an assortment of multicolored wristbands and awkward tan lines.
Over the past three months, Henderson has traveled to 28 festivals, stadium concerts, and live music shows with hopes of getting millennial voters excited about the 2014 Midterm elections. This summer alone, Henderson’s organization, the New York based non-partisan civic engagement organization HeadCount, has helped register 11,266 voters and gotten 23,828 voters to pledge to hit the polls this cycle.
“We share this common goal of wanting to make our world better and wanting to do that through the power of music,” says Henderson, HeadCount’s director of artist engagement, who was back working festivals this summer after being struck by a car while canvassing at the South by Southwest festival in Austin in March.
Henderson, who has been working with HeadCount since 2011, says this election season has been a real challenge—as data has shown, young voters are among the groups least likely to participate during Midterm contests, despite showing up in droves during the most recent election. The Harvard University Institute of Politics found less than 1 in 4 voters under 30 plans to participate in the 2014 election, which could spell trouble for the Democratic party which has relied on young voters in the past couple of election cycles. And though young voters are passionate about a range of issues, Henderson says they often fail to turn that passion into action outside of Presidential elections.
“During Presidential elections, if you don’t realize what’s going on you’re probably living under a rock,” Henderson says. “But Midterms are not that accessible.”
In HeadCount’s eyes, music and musicians can step in and bridge the divide. Aside from attending shows to get folks registered, HeadCount works directly with artists to get them to encourage their fans and followers to participate. “I’ve met a lot of people who don’t like politics,” says Henderson. “I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like music.”
In 2012, HeadCount commissioned artists to share pictures of clipboards designed with a get-out-the-vote message on their social media accounts. On Election Day, their campaign received over 150 million social media impressions. This year, they’re hoping to double it.
It’s a lofty goal, but given the success of social media campaigns used to engage young people—and the fact that the group has the backing of musical heavy hitters including Jay-Z, Dave Matthews Band, and Beyonce—the group may be on to something. According to the Yale University Institute for Social and Policy Studies, personal delivery is the most effective way to mobilize voters. That’s where Head Count’s presence at events like the Budweiser Made in America Festival held in Philadelphia over Labor Day weekend can have the largest impact.
Between sets from artists and DJs ranging from AWOLNATION to Steve Aoki—and with headliners including Kanye West and Kings of Leon drawing large crowds to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway despite overcast skies and a torrential downpour—Head Count was able to interact with nearly 300 young people in Philadelphia who either registered or pledged to vote in the upcoming election.
On the steamy Sunday afternoon, volunteers weaved in and out of crowds with clipboards, asking groups of youngsters clad in duds from American Apparel and Urban Outfitters if they were registered to vote. Every once in a while, a handful of future voters would approach HeadCount’s tent, located in a row of non-profit organizations looking to engage with festivalgoers. And though the crowd at Made in America was noticeably young—with many of the people HeadCount volunteers interacted with a bit too young to get out the vote come November—Henderson says their impact will still be felt.
“Maybe we don’t register them there,” Henderson told TIME after the festival. “But on some level I know the interaction stays with them. The importance of voting stays with them; that nudging reminder that when they turn 18, this is something that they should do. And that – just that interaction alone – is enough to make me believe that what we are doing is meaningful.”
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