• March 3, 2020

Inside Headcount’s Incredible Electoral Engagement Program

Headcount uses concerts, festivals, theater and other entertainment events to draw young people into the electoral process. Here's how they do it.

There are many things that people like to do at concerts, but getting politically active was not generally on the list—until now. HeadCount is changing that with pioneering efforts in voter registration nationwide.

The nonprofit is using concerts, festivals, theater, and other entertainment events to draw people—many of them young—into the electoral process. Engaging people in places where they are relaxed and having fun has posted some impressive numbers. HeadCount has registered more than 640,000 people. 

“The artists get behind voter registration,” said Emily Gibbs, HeadCount’s managing director. “People want to be talked to by someone they look up to and trust. They don’t want to be talked down to.” 

Partnering with major artists like Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish and Dead & Co., who call upon fans to register, has been a winning formula. As Gibbs put it, “it compels people.”

The Power of Technology

Gibbs says something special happens when people gather around music. “There is something that binds all those people together, they are all there to hear the same thing,” she said. “We are meeting them in a place where they are super comfortable.”

Approaching fans with information and a soft approach works well. “Every single person who interacts with us, we’re going to give them important election information,” Gibbs said. “We are really trying to make things really clear and easy for people to understand how, when, and where to vote.”

The organization has also grown more sophisticated. Two years ago, HeadCount was using a paper-driven process to opt people into election alerts. Gibbs, who has a background in digital advocacy, helped make some changes.

The nonprofit adopted Capitol Canary’s platform and began using text messaging, custom keywords and SMS shortcodes to communicate with music fans. The change allowed audiences to respond using their phones, often with dramatic results. Artists could do calls to action from the stage and get an immediate response. As an example, roughly 15,000 people responded to a call to action on the TV show The Real.  

It also allowed HeadCount to get rid of the paper, and the manual data entry that came with it. The database now grows digitally, with information automatically captured on every person they reach. “It really helped us get our act together,” Gibbs said. 

HeadCount also began sending would-be voters to digital Election Centers that can be customized for events and artists. The centers allow people to register, check their registration status, and pledge to vote.   

HeadCount even created a custom Election Center for each of their team leaders—there are more than 100—so they can conduct registration efforts wherever they go, which includes music festivals and events in smaller venues.

HeadCount’s most recent use of Capitol Canary’s GOTV tools is a campaign featuring the five time Grammy winner Billie Eilish. The artist took to social media on Super Tuesday to motivate her fans to participate, be engaged, and vote in the 2020 election. Her tweet, with an embedded video, directed fans to Headcount’s Election Center, while Billie Eilish talked about the importance of being involved in the political process.

Capitol Canary “has been a critical tool for us to do our business.It has really been a game-changer.” Gibbs said.

Sophisticated Outreach

Of course, there is more to a successful program than large venues and big stars. HeadCount continues to engage its audience after the initial encounter. 

With a database that is heavy with teenagers, one novel approach has been to contact people on their 18th birthday and remind them to vote. In another effort, HeadCount simply asked people to contact their lawmakers about issues they care about.

“There were teenagers writing pages and pages about student loans, police brutality, gun violence and women’s rights,” she said. “That was awesome.”  

Now, HeadCount is trying to leverage that kind of passion with a “Me + 3” campaign in which supporters bring three friends or family members into the process. The organization is providing tips on how to do that. As the organization builds trust with its audience, people are responding.   

As Gibbs put it, “people see HeadCount and we don’t get the eye roll.”