David Byrne has, in recent years, become an outspoken advocate for voter registration. Now he’s made convincing people to register to vote a major part of new Broadway production, American Utopia. During the show, he shines a light on 20 percent of the audience to highlight the amount of people who turn out to vote. He then takes it a step further at the show by encouraging people to register in the lobby and, more importantly, commit to voting. “I would have thought, ‘Oh, come on. They’re all registered,'” he tells Rolling Stone. “But they’re not.”
Getting people to register is an extension of the groundwork Byrne laid during the 2016 election, when he went to the South to sign up potential voters, as well as carrying on the traditions of Rock the Vote and campaigns like R.E.M.’s inclusion of voter registration cards for 1991’s Out of Time. (Neil Young has also been outspoken about his desire to become a citizen so he can vote, even though his progress has been stymied by his marijuana use admission.) Regardless, Byrne would like to see the people who are eligible to vote actually take advantage of that privilege. “Look at the people showing up at the polls, and it’s like 25 percent. It’s pathetic,” he said in 2016. “I had British citizenship with a green card and I became an American citizen so that I could vote.”
Byrne is proud of the progress the organization HeadCount has made so far at his shows. His office reports that, on average, six to 10 people were registering to vote at each American Utopia performance, ahead of the election earlier this month. “They’re actually getting people to register,” he says. “They want to push it further and, as I say in the show, get people to commit to vote. That is a bigger step. The registration they can do right there in the lobby; getting people to commit to, ‘Yes, I will vote in the November election,’ that’s a tougher step.”
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Voting has always been important to Byrne. After all, it’s the reason the artist, who was born in Scotland and moved to the U.S. via Canada before he was 10, became a U.S. citizen in 2012. When Rolling Stone asks him why it took him so long, he laughs sheepishly. “Well, I was busted,” he says. “I had the mistaken idea, I guess — or maybe not — but I had a green card and I had an idea that the law was that people with green cards, permanent residents, could vote for everything except president — which I did.
“And then one time, shortly before I got my citizenship, I went into the local elementary school where you vote and they finally must have checked against citizenship, immigration, whatever else, and they said, ‘You can’t vote!'” he continues. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll be back.’ They were good-natured about it.”
How long did it take after that for him to become a citizen? “Not long,” he says. “I applied right away after that.”
Since American Utopia closes in February, Byrne is still deciding what he wants to do to ramp up to the 2020 election. He’s not opposed to repeating what he did in 2016 and trying to get people to sign up. “It depends on my schedule,” he says. “When I went to North Carolina for the last one, I was determined to be nonpartisan about it. It was about getting people to vote and making sure they have information. I can see doing that again. I’m less comfortable stumping for a candidate, but trying to get people out there, get ranked voting, get rid of gerrymandering and trying to make voting more representative.”