Explainer: How Celebrities Influence the Voting Process

Home » Explainer: How Celebrities Influence the Voting Process

One would think that once the voting age had been lowered to 18, voter participation would have skyrocketed in the 1972 U.S presidential election. That wasn’t the case, however, as very few youths signed up to vote. This trend has continued quite a lot over the past few decades as typical youth voter turnout has been 20 to 30 percent less than voters of an older age. Celebrities, however, have begun taking the initiative and using their influence, especially on social media, to encourage young people to participate in elections and exercise their right to vote.

During the 2018 midterm election in the U.S, many celebrities took to social media to voice the importance of voting, open up about their political views, and encourage their followers to vote.

Using primarily Twitter and Instagram, celebrities Alicia Keys, Pink and Lin Manuel Miranda, who have a combined total of over 40 million followers on both sites, posted on Election day about the importance of voters exercising their right and freedom to make themselves heard no matter what happens.

Additionally, on November 5, 2018, the night before the midterm election, 50 comedians, actors and YouTube stars partnered up for a live streaming event called “Telethon for America” with the goal of firing up younger voters. Celebrities who participated included Chelsea Handler, Charlize Theron, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Judd Apatow. Some celebrities have even taken to social media to offer incentives for their followers to vote. For example, Maggie Gyllenhaal told her followers that if they shared a picture on their Instagram stories that proved they voted and tagged her in them, she would then share these photos on her story. 

Besides encouraging youth voters to register to vote via social media and livestreaming, celebrities are also partnering with organizations that specialized in signing youths up to vote. HeadCount for instance, is a youth voter advocacy organization that has registered more than 600,000 voters at concerts, music festivals and online. In 2019, HeadCount partnered with singer/songwriter Ariana Grande during her Sweetener Tour to get more young people registered to vote. At the end of the tour, they had set a record with 33,381 registered voters, making it the most successful tour in HeadCount’s history.

Despite all the good that has been done with celebrity influence for voter registration, there are some inherent flaws with it. While some celebrities have been encouraging youths to register, some have encouraged voting for candidates they endorsed. For instance, research conducted by the University of Maryland revealed that Oprah’s endorsement of Barack Obama brought him more than a million votes during the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary. During the 2018 midterm election, Taylor Swift also threw her considerable star power behind Nashville candidate Jim Cooper who won Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District Seat.

Communications professor Dr. Rachael Sullivan of St. Joseph’s University researches issues related to internet culture and social media as well as the ethics behind digital interface design and user-friendly rhetoric. Sullivan states that celebrity influence is varied. For example, celebrities come from different industries such as music and film. Their audiences can be different, their social media platforms they use can be different, and their selection of the campaigns to become involved in, such as midterm and presidential elections, can be different.

At times, when celebrities have shared their political views, there have been a group of people who have protested against it, saying that celebrities shouldn’t get political and just focus on their careers. Sullivan says that people are more tolerant of celebrities being political when they just post a picture of themselves wearing an “I voted” sticker on their clothes which was frequent during the 2018 midterm election.

In 2018, Taylor Swift caused a huge controversy when she expressed her political views on Instagram and even told her followers to vote for Democratic candidates Jim Cooper and Phil Bredesen in order to take a stand for the LGBT+ community and women’s rights. Up until then, she was very apolitical and neutral about her views. So much so that President Donald J. Trump’s supporters believed that she was one of them, and according to Sullivan, there was even an online community that viewed her as a white supremacist goddess. Despite the controversy, Vote.org reported that Swift’s revelation resulted in more than 65,000 people registering within 24 hours. 

Sullivan states that we all have an identity that we create online. Celebrities have online personas as well, so there is an uncertainty as to whether their intentions are genuine or if they are using their influence and the time period for personal gain. Additionally, there is the possibility that candidates are sponsored by other organizations and promoting them for personal gain. For example, Sullivan explained the actress Mandy Moore used a social media post to not only promote voting, but to sell t-shirts from an organization that sponsored her as well.

Sullivan also believes that it is much safer for celebrities to support causes because they are much less controversial than advocating for specific political candidates. Not to mention, celebrity endorsements have been known to hurt candidates at times. Trump, in his lead up to the 2016 presidential election, celebrated that he had no celebrity endorsements and claimed that he didn’t need them. An endorsement by Oprah hurt Hillary R. Clinton’s presidential campaign as the groups that opposed Oprah had more fuel to add to the fire.

Overall, while celebrity encouragement for the voting process has greatly enhanced the number of registered youth voters, Sullivan recommends that youths don’t rely entirely on celebrities or any forms of social media such as Facebook memes for voting encouragement. All celebrities have an online persona they push and it’s possible that they could be hiding their true intentions underneath. Not to mention, celebrities getting involved with politics has been known to cause a lot of controversy and can hurt either themselves and or the candidates they support or endorse. Therefore, youths should be leaning more towards verifiable sources for information about candidates as well as proper education on the voting process.        

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Youth Voters Unite is a transmedia storytelling project produced by senior Communication majors at Cabrini University. Students in Senior Convergence: Media for Social Justice are reporting this academic year on the voting process and voting justice topics. Their goal is to educate youth voters on the importance of engaging in the political process and claiming their right to shape their own future. 


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