the hollywood sign covered in "i voted" stickers
Photos via Pixabay and the L.A. County Registrar
Entertainment

Pretty Much Every Celebrity Encouraged People to Vote This Year. Did It Work?

All those posts may have seemed like half-assed, empty gestures, but according to experts, they might have actually made a difference.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, United States
DJ
illustrated by Dessie Jackson
November 5, 2020, 8:44pm

Celebrities made a big push to help get out the vote this year, in the weird, questionably helpful way celebrities tend to do such a thing. Lady Gaga put on a bunch of wild outfits for a video encouraging everyone in America to vote, "even if you disagree with me"; then, standing in front of a huge pickup truck in all camo, drinking a beer for some reason, she explicitly endorsed Joe Biden. Michael Keaton also threw his support behind the former Vice President, asking people to follow his lead because, as he put it: "I'm frickin' Batman." Pretty much every celebrity in America—including heavy hitters like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Kylie Jenner, Ariana Grande, Michael B. Jordan, Eminem, Cardi B, and Bella Hadid—said at least something about the importance of going to the polls, flooding The Timeline with more voting-related posts from famous people, it seems, than in any previous election cycle.

The cynics among us might see celebrities' get-out-the-vote efforts on social media as nothing more than empty gestures: self-serving, brand-building exercises that show their fans they're politically engaged without accomplishing much else. But according to Nora Gilbert, Vote.org's director of partnerships, all those posts made a difference. 

"The impact is real," Gilbert said. "When we see Taylor Swift or Kylie Jenner or Rihanna post Vote.org stuff, we see the engagement on the platform. And the numbers and traffic that [celebrities] drive to the site is really meaningful."

“Whereas maybe in past election cycles it was a political act to speak out, now it's a political act not to speak out.”

When Kylie Jenner threw a link to Vote.org's registration verification tool in her Instagram bio, coupled with a photo of herself in a bikini, traffic to the webpage "shot up astronomically," Gilbert said. It's impossible to say whether all that engagement translated to new registrations; if those registrations translated into actual votes; and, if they did, which candidates those votes might have broken for. But at a minimum, Jenner's post gave her Instagram following, which skews young, one more incentive to register to vote, and a tool to help them do it.

"This year, millennials and Gen Z are making up 37 percent of the electorate, and [they've] traditionally been some of the lowest-turnout age groups," Gilbert said. "We want to make sure that all of those eligible voters show up. We want to make sure that we are reaching voters where they are, with messengers they trust and look up to, and whose influence they will follow."

Part of the reason so many celebrities posted about voting this year, Gilbert said, is that Vote.org launched a targeted campaign to get them to. The non-partisan, 501(c)(3) nonprofit reached out to influencers—from YouTubers to musicians to Hollywood A-listers—with a "blueprint" for what they could post to help boost turnout, and even helped some craft specific plans for a long-term social media rollout. In other cases, celebrities contacted them, seeking advice on what their messaging should look like and what resources it should include. Maybe they were motivated to get involved because they legitimately cared about getting President Donald Trump out of office; or maybe it was because, if they didn't, they knew they'd be slammed for not speaking out. 

"Silence has worked against people this time around," Gilbert said. "There was criticism in 2016 for sitting out, and I think there's more of a recognition of the responsibility of having a platform when it comes to moments like this…. Whereas maybe in past election cycles it was a political act to speak out, now it's a political act not to speak out. It could hurt someone's reputation to not do so."

For decades, celebrities were entitled to what Vanity Fair's Kenzie Bryant recently called the "informal right to stay out of politics," and—even up through the 2016 election—a majority of them exercised that right. But at a time when fans expect celebrities to speak out on social and political issues, silence is no longer an option. These days, the safest play a celebrity can make, from a PR perspective, is to simply encourage voting without endorsing a specific candidate. That's a road a lot of them have taken this year, including Justin Bieber, Chris Evans, Big Sean, Jeff Goldblum, and Tyler, the Creator

It's easy to understand why a celebrity might be motivated to stay impartial—it allows them to avoid alienating fans on either side of the political spectrum—and it's tempting to criticize them for failing to explicitly denounce Trump. But according to Mark Harvey, the director of graduate and undergraduate programs at St. Mary's University, and the author of Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy, research shows that celebrities might be more effective at getting people to vote than convincing them to vote for a specific candidate.

"Most research that I've seen suggests that when celebrities get in the business of advocating on behalf of a candidate, there's not really a very positive effect," Harvey told VICE. "What I can prove, based on my research, is that if celebrities choose an issue and they start talking about it, people are going to start paying more attention to that issue…. It's going to raise the salience of that issue so that it becomes something that's at least more talked about, more acknowledged."

It's almost a given that some celebrities remained impartial to protect themselves from criticism—but maybe, Harvey said, some knew that their voice would be best used to encourage voting in general. 

"[Maybe] they're thinking, Well, maybe I'm wasting my breath if I take one side or another—but maybe the least I could do is get more people involved," Harvey said. "I don't think that's a bad moral place to be, necessarily."

This year, a number of celebrities were surprisingly candid about the fact that they'd be voting for the first time, including Shaquille O'Neal, Snoop Dogg, Selena Gomez, Ryan Reynolds, Noah Centineo, and Offset. Gomez explained that up until now, she never felt like her vote mattered. O'Neal said that he'd avoided voting because he didn't understand the electoral college system. Snoop Dogg thought he couldn't vote because he had been convicted of a felony. To Gilbert, having celebrities reveal that they were voting for the first time, regardless of the reason why, is critical. 

"It's modeling the behavior of how people become voters, and acknowledging that that's not just about turning 18," Gilbert said. "These things are important for reaching audiences that might not have known that they could vote, might not have known how to vote, might not have thought it mattered. We need all of those messages. And it's way more powerful if somebody who has been incarcerated is sharing a message about that than if I am."

The million-dollar question, here, is whether all of these celebrities' "go vote!" posts actually made an impact on the results of the election. As Harvey noted, so many factors—Republican efforts to suppress the vote, and the backlash against that; the COVID-19 crisis making it easier, in some states, to vote by mail; the degree to which people are, according to Harvey, "fired up" about the candidate they support (and the one they hate)—led to the highest voter turnout for a presidential election since 1900. One would think that those circumstances had more influence on getting out the vote than, say, Taylor Swift telling people to go to the polls. But in an election where extremely narrow margins in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada will determine who will win the presidency, even a marginal boost in turnout makes a big difference. There isn't data to show how many people decided to vote because a celebrity told them to—but according to Gilbert, "There's no world in which it's not a net positive on voter engagement."

"I don't know how to disentangle all the different factors," Gilbert said. "But if a celebrity encourages one person to vote that otherwise wouldn't, that's an impact."

Still, the divide between the haves and have nots persists, something that's become especially pronounced since Tuesday. Chrissy Teigen tweeted that "it's insane what our fears are if we lose, compared to their fears if Biden wins"—leading one to wonder exactly who Teigen thinks "we" are.

She's just one of countless celebrities, from Chelsea Handler to Kumail Nanjiani, who have invoked the royal "we" in the past few days, speaking as if they have just as much on the line in this election as the rest of the country. But as Angie Jaime recently wrote in Teen Vogue, "it is Black folks, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, queer people, people of trans experience, and every intersection of otherwise marginalized people that are going to have to deal with the repercussions and live with the aftermath" of this election—not the rich and famous. 

There's a limit to how helpful celebrities can be in this moment, and—in terms of boosting voter turnout—they seem to have done their part. Perhaps it's best if, instead of publicly fretting about what happens next online, they simply quit while they're ahead.

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.