The 2008 election was a historic event for the United States, but it was a pretty big deal for HeadCount as well. It was the year HeadCount proved it could hold its own in the big leagues.
“It was a different world for us,” recalls co-founder and Executive Director Andy Bernstein. “In 2004 we were all volunteer and brand new, so really anything we did was an accomplishment. Then in 2008, we had some pretty lofty expectations. It was a ‘100,000 voters or bust’ mentality. On top of that, we couldn't just think about one year. We were trying to make HeadCount last."
One of the first big steps in that process involved change at the organization’s highest levels. While Bernstein had put his heart and soul into HeadCount in the early days, he had handed over control of the group to its first Executive Director, Virgina McEnerny, in 2007. After almost six months under her leadership, it was collectively decided that Bernstein needed to do more than just co-chair the board if HeadCount was going to have a viable future.
“It was actually clear to everyone but me at first,” he remembers. “Jacey Anderson, our Director of Operations, said to me: ‘This is a choice between success and failure.’ Until she said those words I didn't 'get' it, but at that point it was clear what had to be done. I quit my job [with a sports technology company] and the rest is history.” After a brief transition, McEnerney joined HeadCount’s board of directors, and shortly after became executive director of the Alliance for Young Writer and Artists.
With Bernstein fully committed as Executive Director, HeadCount got to work on an assortment of ambitious projects.
In early April, board member Bob Weir made a private appearance for HeadCount at the home of a supporter in Washington D.C. The purpose of the event was to raise some funds, but moreso to put HeadCount on the minds of DC insiders who were also fans of the Grateful Dead – of which there are many. It was so well-attended that a giant tent has to be rented at the last minute, pretty much killing all the profits but making it a party to remember.
“Of all the great 'moments' in HeadCount history, I don't think any was as powerful and emotional as what went down in D.C.,” says Bernstein. “Bob spent hours meeting and chatting with all our guests, but by the time he was ready to perform, he'd lost his voice. So someone shouted 'we'll sing for you.' And that's what happened. He went into ‘Ripple’ on acoustic guitar, and the whole crowd—most of whom were DC-types in suits—sang every word. It was amazing. And we got a nice piece in Rolling Stone about it. It really put us on the map.”
A few weeks later, the touring season was in full swing. HeadCount sent teams on tour with top-tier acts like Dave Matthews Band, Jack Johnson, Pearl Jam, O.A.R., The Allman Brothers Band, and John Mayer, with volunteers registering their fans to vote in droves at each stop. HeadCount also joined forces with a few other non-profits to put on a nationwide contest aimed at getting students to the polls, and even moved beyond the usual audiences to register voters at the "Rock The Bells" hip-hop tour and the "Music Builds" Christian rock tour
“Everything that had worked in years past was put in place in 2008,” says former outreach director Sebastian Freed. “As a grassroots nonprofit, you’re obviously always learning and trying new things, but 2008 felt like the World Series. We were the only voter registration group left doing work [at concerts], so we were more in the public eye. If people wanted to register at a show or a festival, it had to be with HeadCount.”
The list of bands HeadCount worked with was as eclectic as it was star-studded. Nine Inch Nails, The Black Crowes, Kings of Leon, Neil Young, Cake, Ani DiFranco, The Indigo Girls and Megadeth appeared on the event list. Many of these partnered artists also contributed to a series of radio public service announcements, including Weir, HeadCount co-founder Marc Brownstein, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Warren Haynes. Jack Johnson even stopped by the HeadCount booth before each of his shows to provide the team with a few words of encouragement.
“The Jack Johnson tour from 2008 still ranks as our most successful tour ever in terms of number of registrants per show,” recalls Bernstein. “I give a lot of credit to Jack himself, who met with our volunteers before every gig and pumped them up.”
When the deadlines passed and the dust finally settled, HeadCount looked back on an unprecedented year. The group had registered 105,609 people to vote, including over 50,000 at live music events. The rest came via HeadCount’s website and college outreach.
And yet the work did not end with registrations. Getting new voters on the rolls was a first step, but the most important thing was making sure they actually went to the polls. HeadCount’s two-pronged approach to ensuring this included an innovative phone-based Get Out The Vote effort, where any volunteer could win a trip on Jam Cruise just by calling voters and encouraging them to turn out. It also included a special concert aimed at getting people excited on the night before the election.
The announced lineup included Joss Stone, Questlove, Robert Randolph, Stanton Moore, The Disco Biscuits, American Babies and Chris Baron. Plus John Medeski, Warren Haynes and Phil Lesh were surprise guests, joining Moore for an unforgettable encore.
“We never did a show that was as star-studded as that one," remembers Bernstein. “Joss Stone was a trip. I had lunch with her a few weeks before the show and she was really passionate about American politics. I think all the other musicians enjoyed playing with her. Scott Metzger did an amazing job as musical director. I mean, it was a crazy group of artists. Turning that stew into a tasty soup was no easy task, but it really worked.”
“I’m now a talent buyer for Bowery Presents in NYC,” adds Freed. “I book hundreds of shows a year and none of them are as difficult as a HeadCount show. Booking the talent, handling the artist hospitality, coordinating the VIPs, , the list just goes on an on.”
Yet all of that elbow grease paid dividends in the end. A report came out a year later from a group called the New Organizing Institute, analyzing data from dozens of voter registration groups. HeadCount had the third highest voter turnout rate of any group in the study, and the very best percentage of successfully getting registrants on the rolls.
“There were some real standout team leaders in 2008 who made the year a big success,” adds Bernstein. “Melissa Brennan in New York, who is still one of our All-Stars today. Abby Brazina and Nicole Parisi-Smith on the road with Jack Johnson, who are both still heavily involved. Tappan Vickery in San Francisco who now does all our Team Leader recruiting and interviews. Dan Conroe who was an amazing regional coordinator and probably logged more HeadCount hours than anyone. There are plenty more who really made 2008 happen and they’re the ones deserve the credit and vaulted HeadCount to the next level.”