Six months before the 2018 Congressional midterm elections—and days before high school graduations nationwide—March For Our Lives and HeadCount are joining forces to stage a day of action Tuesday (May 29) to fight gun violence by registering thousands of high school students to vote.
“High schools represent the future of America,” said March for Our Lives student activist David Hogg, who turned 18 this spring, in a statement. “Let’s make it a future where everyone has the chance to register and vote.” He added: “People have died for your right to vote, but you can’t vote if you’re not registered.”
HeadCount, a non-partisan, voter-registration organization with deep ties to the music industry, reports that, as of May 24, representatives from 1,050 different schools from 46 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico have signed up at HeadCount.org /SignUp to participate in the day of action. Some have already run voter registration drives in their schools and many more will do so on Tuesday, when classes resume after Memorial Day weekend.
On Feb. 17, just three days after Hogg and his classmates witnessed the mass murder of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., high school senior Emma Gonzalez made an impassioned speech linking the fight against gun violence with voter activism.
“Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats, funded by the NRA, telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this — we call BS!,” she declared. “They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence — we call BS!” And she closed her speech with her three most powerful words: If you agree, she said, “register to vote!”
March For Our Lives, created in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. shootings, mounted the march against gun violence in Washington, D.C. March 24, which drew more than 800,000 participants, according to organizers’ estimates.
“The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is 73 million millennials with a vote,” tweeted activist Tyler Suarez, days before the D.C. march. Suarez, one of the organizers of a March For Our Lives event in Connecticut, is the nephew of Dawn Hochsprung, the slain principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six adults were massacred in a shooting in 2012.
While March For Our Lives activists in recent months have continued their efforts to reform the nation’s gun laws, on May 18, ten students were murdered by a 17-year-old classmate wielding a shotgun and a .38 caliber handgun.
“Sante Fe High, you didn’t deserve this,” tweeted Gonzalez. “You deserve more than Thoughts and Prayers, and after supporting us [in the national school walkout March 14] we will be there to support you by raising up our voices.”
In 2016, only 42.8 percent of 18 year olds were registered to vote and only 34.4 percent voted in the Presidential elections, HeadCount organizers noted.
Just how important is voter registration, followed by participation at the polls?
“Of the more than 120 million votes cast in the 2016 election, 107,000 votes in three states effectively decided the election,” the Washington Post reported on Nov. 11, 2016. The paper cited “razor-thin margins” which determined the winner-takes-all allocation of Electoral College votes in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Yet as many as 35 percent of eligible citizens in the United States were not registered to vote in the 2016 election, according to U.S. Census figures. (Other researchers estimate the share of non-registered eligible citizens is closer to 21 percent).
HeadCount notes that turnout for Congressional and local elections is even lower than in presidential contests. In 2014, less than 20 percent of all eligible voters under 30 turned out to vote in the midterm elections, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
HeadCount ran the on-the-ground voter registration efforts at the March in Washington, DC and 29 other cities. In advance of Tuesday’s day of action, the organization released a guide to running community and high school voter registration drives and set a goal of 90 percent of American high schools hosting a voter registration drive before the end of this academic year.
“There’s an inequality in the education system when some schools have very organized voter registration efforts and others have nothing,” said HeadCount executive director Andy Bernstein. “But this is one of those rare societal problems that can be fixed pretty easily. If some schools already do a great job helping students register, there’s no reason all schools can’t do the same.”
HeadCount has been providing hands-on support to students around the country who are organizing voter registration in their schools. They’ve also provided the same support to teachers and faculty.
HeadCount.org has registered close to 500,000 voters since it was founded in 2004, and has worked with more than 100 musicians, according to Bernstein. This spring, the organization registered voters at tour dates by an array of musicians, including The Avett Brothers, MGMT, Lucius, Hinds, The Decemberists, Franz Ferdinand, Chromeo, and David Byrne. This summer, the organization has “a very large presence” at tour dates by Dead & Company, Phish and Dave Matthews Band, says Bernstein, and has also received support from acts including Portugal. The Man and Vic Mensa.
“The music industry has been incredibly supportive of the March For Our Lives movement, and HeadCount’s work in that space,” Bernstein told Billboard Friday. “We’ve seen artists lend their time and voice in a myriad of ways.
“But I’ll say this,” he added, “the rock stars are the Parkland students. David Hogg has been championing our high school initiative for over a month, and most of the schools got involved because someone saw one of his tweets.”