Under Florida’s new voting law, every time a kid with a clipboard approaches you to register to vote at a Dave Matthews Band concert, that kid must tell you: “But, by the way, your application might not make it in time for the next election.”
“It’s just an unnecessary thing that is, honestly, not even true,” says Tappan Vickery, voter engagement director for HeadCount, the voter-registration group that sued Florida officials over the law in U.S. District Court last month. “We are going to process their forms, and we are going to do it in accordance with state law.”
HeadCount, which has registered more than 1 million voters since 2004, has pivoted since last November’s election to focus on the 389 bills introduced this year by state legislatures, from Florida to Georgia, to make voting harder. Now, instead of sending its clipboard armies to concerts and festivals to register voters, HeadCount is asking music fans to contact lawmakers to “protect our ability to freely and safely vote.” Its Save the Vote! campaign began July 1, with artists Big Freedia, Dead and Company and Evanescence‘s Amy Lee speaking out on social media and volunteers working the crowd at events like the Peach Music Festival in Scranton, Pa.
“It is a challenge, because we all had a little fatigue after the 2020 election,” Vickery says. “But it’s more important than ever that people pay attention right now.”
HeadCount has deep ties to the music business, and a central part of its model is to register fans at hundreds of concerts by acts from Jason Isbell to Mary J. Blige. Its founder and executive director, Andy Bernstein, wrote a Phish book called The Pharmer’s Almanac; New York-based promoter Peter Shapiro chairs the board, which includes top concert promoters, Dead and Company’s Bob Weir and Disco Biscuits‘ Marc Brownstein. The group is nonpartisan, but waded into regional politics this year after the new election-law activity, which voting-rights critics say is voter suppression.
Throughout the 2020 election campaign, music-centered voter-registration groups like Rock the Vote and HeadCount were frustrated that the pandemic prevented them from connecting with voters in person. They’re returning to that work this year as tours and festivals come back — Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, says the group plans to restart its activism this fall, at festivals like Broccoli City in Washington, D.C., as well as Black college-homecoming festivities, adapting its long-running Respect My Vote! Campaign to the new state election laws. “Unfortunately, we continue. We use music, poetry and artists to educate,” he says. “And when artists go out there and call out something, it usually goes viral.”
“Voting should be a basic right once you turn 18, and if it’s not easy and it’s not basic, there’s something wrong. It needs to be that plain-Jane explained,” says Kam Franklin of the Suffers, a Houston singer who is on HeadCount’s board. “I try to lead with the facts and allow them to make their own decision. That’s pretty much all I do — then go to the next song.”
Artists speaking to their fans on stage about voting has been effective over the years, beginning with Rock the Vote, which has registered 12 million voters since it formed in 1990. The more nuanced Save the Vote! message can be equally as effective, says Jade Ford, a legal fellow at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, a voter-rights group based in New York City. “That sort of celebrity attention definitely can go a long way in engaging an audience who might not otherwise hear those messages,” she says. “It’s great to see that type of work.”
“This is a very passionate generation, and part of our job right now is to let them know, ‘Well, you’ve shown up — and now they’re threatened by you,'” adds Carolyn DeWitt, Rock the Vote’s executive director, which is focusing on federal efforts to strengthen voting rights, such as the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Enhancement Act (although neither is likely to pass in the Senate). “Demystifying voting rights is critically important to empower voters.”
The HeadCount lawsuit, filed June 21 against Florida’s secretary of state and attorney general, is in response to the state’s new election law, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in early May. Voting-rights groups have ripped the Florida law for restricting mail-in voting, limiting drop boxes for absentee ballots and preventing groups from influencing voters within 150 feet of a polling location — all of which could deter people of color and other traditionally liberal groups from voting, even though there was no sign of fraud, in Florida or elsewhere, in last November’s election. Voter-rights advocates such as the League of Women Voters and the NAACP have sued the state over the bill, and experts have said the litigation could cost millions.
Florida’s Republican secretary of state, Laurel Lee, did not respond to a request for comment, and a rep for its Republican attorney general, Ashley Moody, declined to comment. DeSantis, also a Republican, has said the law will strengthen voting rights: “Me signing this bill here says, ‘Florida, your vote counts.'”
HeadCount’s lawsuit, joined by the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters, hones in on the voter-registration portion of Florida’s law, which reads in part: “A third-party voter registration organization must notify the applicant … that the organization might not deliver the application … before registration closes for the next ensuing election.” The clause, says Michelle Kanter Cohen, a Fair Elections Center attorney who represents HeadCount, is “essentially requiring HeadCount and other organizations that do similar work to undermine themselves.”
Relying on the courts to overturn Florida’s election law, as well as similar ones in Georgia and other Republican-led states, may be risky. On July 1, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 to uphold Arizona’s 2016 voting restrictions, which ensured that voters, family members and caregivers could be the only people to deliver a completed ballot to a polling precinct. The ruling suggests the conservative-dominated SCOTUS could uphold other recent state election laws as well. The decision is “disappointing,” says Rock the Vote’s DeWitt, but “we need Congress to pass federal legislation so registration and voting is equally accessible in all 50 states.”
Still, says the Campaign Legal Center’s Ford, lower courts could strike down some of the state-law provisions — including the Florida voter-registration restrictions, which she calls “unconstitutional,” because they mandate what groups like HeadCount are allowed to say. And she encourages music fans to support the new voter-protection efforts at concerts. “The provision at issue in the HeadCount case is particularly egregious,” she says. “People need to organize effectively around these issues. They really hamper a bedrock of our political process.”