Hart Welles wears a pink cowboy hat with a white flower crown circling the brim and has smears of purple glitter on his high cheekbones. There’s a clipboard under his arms that he keeps tucked into his hip. That clipboard is thick with voter registration forms, some of them blank, but many of them filled with the scrawling details of youths. Almost all of that scrawling belong to first-time voters who will enter the chaotic silence of the poll booth in the next few months, or maybe for the first time during Donald Trump’s reelection bid against whatever figure the Democrats have sent through their crowded field.
Welles is part of a nonpartisan group called Headcount that registers voters at music festivals and concerts. Their website keeps a ticker of the voters that they’ve registered and that figure is edging close to 600,000 since they were founded in 2005. At the Bonnaroo Music Festival alone, they registered over 1,200 people to vote.
Playboy met up with Hart and his team at the Firefly Music Festival, a massive event in Dover, Delaware. Headliners this year included Panic at the Disco, Post Malone and Travis Scott but the undercards were on par with the best festivals. Firefly is seen as one of the elite music arenas in the nation simply because it is. Music pumps through a half-wooded area that feels both intimate and awesome.
Hart leads me into a group of hammocks slung loose between trees and finds a gaggle of teens, who he approaches with a simple question: Have you guys registered to vote? One girl tells him that she’s not registered yet because she’s not 18, and Hart says “You can do it now and then you can vote in the election—get it out of the way. We can do it, it’s like super-easy. It’s like the top half of this form and then you’re registered to vote.” The girl shrugs, and he hands her the clipboard. Another says that she’s registered for an absentee, and he offers her the form to change her address so that it will come directly to her. After a few minutes, the group is gone, and he’s back into the hammocks.
There’s a personal aspect for Hart at this festival, he first registered to vote while at Firefly three years ago. He tells me that it seemed like a perfect fit for him, saying, “I’m passionate about politics, and I also like volunteering at music festivals.” During a conversation with Headcount higher-ups earlier that week, they referred me to Hart, calling him one of their best canvassers.
They’re passionate about some far-out notion called democracy and they’re passionate about music, they’ve just managed to find a strange brew that serves both.
There’s no talk of politics during the conversations that Hart spins, you almost forget that Donald Trump is the president. After they register, I ask people where they’re from and am surprised to meet so many from the midwest, and I am surprised to meet so many who tell me they registered as Republicans—Headcount’s nonpartisan claim holds water. The group says that in 2018, they registered more voters in Texas than any other state. And Hart isn’t here peddling politicians or even politics, he’s just offering his clipboard. When I ask him about this later, he chuckles and says “Sometimes people tell me ‘I bet I can guess who you voted for,’ and they literally can’t.”
A few minutes later, we stumble into the Treehouse Stage, a side set that will still feature talented acts like Great Good Fine Ok and Nora en Pure. A line of concert-goers lean against the barrier with their elbows cresting, inches from the stage. The show doesn’t start for half an hour, but they’re here early for access. I began following Headcount around the festival. Hart walks down the line of people, asking them to vote and is able to register one of the twenty. It seems that everywhere Hart goes, he registers somebody to vote.
Over the next few hours, it feels that Hart isn’t as passionate about the names on the ballot, and the rest of the ten people that they’ve brought here aren’t passionate about politics. They’re passionate about some far-out notion called democracy and they’re passionate about music, they’ve just managed to find a strange brew that serves both. They will end their day at sundown, in time for them to catch the headliners.
One woman, Alex, a 22-year-old from Missouri edges toward the Headcount booth. She registers and afterwards tells me that she registered as a Republican, but that she has no idea who she might vote for. Asked why she decided to register now, Alex says “because it’s right here and it’s easy,” she says that she’ll definitely vote, but that she didn’t come to the festival planning to register.
We are likely to see more attempts to disenfranchise voters in this coming election cycle—especially young people, like the average festival goer.
After the festival, the forms will be sorted alphabetically by state and sent out. Voter registration laws differ; in Florida, Headcount is listed as a group approved to register voters and in New York, they will ship the forms not to a state office but to individual counties. The group will track when the forms were shipped and when they arrived to ensure that everybody Hart talked to at Firefly is on the rolls when they wander into their polling place.
A few days later, Aaron Ghitelman in the Headcount headquarters out of Manhattan tells Playboy that they registered 567 voters at Firefly. He says that’s their second-highest festival (after Bonnaroo) and would have been their biggest single-weekend voters in 2018, a year in which they registered around 80,000 voters. Along with Ariana Grande, they’re also on tour with Billie Eilish, Death Cab for Cutie and Dave Matthews Band. They just finished a tour with Panic at the Disco.
As a shoestring nonprofit, Headcount has only a handful of paid employees, and they’ve gotten creative about their fundraising. A small portion of their funding comes from individual donations. They are supported largely by the music industry in which they operate. The Dave Matthews Band donates annually, and they auction off guitars signed by the bands who support their mission.
With the 2020 elections elbowing their way into the national consciousness, the group is hoping that their figures will continue to rise. They expect that 2019 will be their most successful year, even as they recognize some of the ugly partisan hurdles of voter suppression that arose in 2018 as Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp cheated his way into a victory over Stacey Abrams by playing Nero with the voting rules. Headcount says that Georgia was among the states where they registered the most voters.
Young voters turned out in twice the number in 2018 as they did in the 2014 midterms. With everybody seemingly angry about something, there’s good reason to expect that the 2020 election will drive young voters to the polls in even larger numbers. And we are likely to see more attempts to disenfranchise voters in this coming election cycle—especially young people, like the average festival goer. Armed with only clipboards and enthusiasm, Headcount is doing its part to make sure that every vote counts in 2020.