#BeAHero: An Exclusive Interview with Two of NerdsVote’s Co-Founders Courtenay Taylor & JP Karliak

First, I saw it on Twitter. Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, who I followed because of her time on Critical Role, posted about an organization called NerdsVote. Next thing I knew, pictures of people wearing NerdsVote t-shirts populated my feed and I was intrigued. I’m a nerd, I vote, so what the heck is this organization? 

The tweets led me to the website and from there my little social worker heart fell in love. Three voice actors (Courtenay Talor, JP Karliak, and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn) had come together to use their platform for a very simple cause: voter registration. 

To start, can you tell me what led up to the creation of NerdsVote? What is its origin story and how did each of you come to be involved?

Courtenay Taylor: It started out of a conversation Ashly Burch and I were having over margaritas at a Mexican food place after a job one day. We were talking about how we could reach out to people. You know, so much of our work place environment is one-on-one and we don’t really have a lot of interactions with folks in the day-to-day so it got me thinking about, really, the only place we see large groups of people is at conventions.

I started kicking around the idea and talked to JP and of course he’s an amazing, you give him a good idea he’s going to build it. Then I can’t remember how Mary Elizabeth [Glynn] got on board – JP?

JP Karliak: I think it also kind of coalesced together, Mary Elizabeth was really enthusiastic about it from the minute we mentioned it and the next thing we know we’ve got a pile of t-shirts on our doorstep so we said: “Alright, we have to start giving these out.”

CT: It is fun because everybody has got their own strengths. It definitely would not have transpired without these three people because JP is so great organizationally and Mary is just this light and so passionate. We’re all really passionate about it, but we’ve got our own elements and our work styles that are really helpful to get this work done.

With our current political climate a lot of people are taking up causes and rallying forces, what led you to choose voter registration as yours?

CT: For me, I’ve always been really political ever since I was a kid. I had actually registered people to vote in my neighborhood during the election season about eight years ago. I just set up a card table one night at a Second Saturday and the act of registering people and tangibly doing something instead of just having conversations about it, to have something concrete felt great. That was it for me.

JPK: I think because so much of the work that we do as “notable nerds” with fan bases, a lot of people are nervous about getting too heavy political so as not to alienate their fans which is understandable. So because we’re a non-partisan group, it is giving a lot of nerdy celebrities an outlet to be like, “Okay, I feel like I’m doing something without turning off fans.”

Truthfully, so many of our fans are intelligent and empathetic and really think outside of the box, they’re very creative. So regardless of what party they align themselves with we just feel that having more of those people voting on important issues and for representatives will automatically get us a better set of people doing the work in Washington.

How did you guys come to be partnered with Headcount.org?

JPK: We went to the March for Life, the gun violence march several months ago, and Headcount had organized a massive nationwide campaign connected to the March for Life where they had their representatives at booths and everything registering people to vote. We were looking for some type of partner because it is really just the three of us doing the work, we’re not a nonprofit, we don’t collect funds, it is just three of us putting our noses to the grindstones and making it happen.

We came across Headcount, got in contact with them, and there were a whole bunch of people in their main office who knew the power of popular culture conventions and they were just really jazzed about having access to this audience. Typically Headcount works at music festivals and concerts so to have access to a whole different audience was very exciting for them.

You guys have done a few conventions and events by this point, what’s the reception been like?

CT: I did a convention on my own, a small con in Tennessee before we coalesced into NerdsVote. I had to chase people down individually with the college voter outreach group. It was fun, it was quick and dirty, and I saw that it was possible but once we kicked into NerdsVote mode it has been much more efficient and much more polished and people are excited. I think we’ve definitely seen an uptick the past couple months of people getting more excited.

I had suggested the idea of putting up some sort of voter registration booth at conventions I attended a couple years ago and people were more hesitant. I think now because of the current climate and also because we were able to partner and make sure it was seen as a non-partisan effort to get people doing their civic duty, changing the idea of “Oh I have to vote” to “I am a voter” is what I do and I do it every time there is a vote up.

I think people’s minds are shifting, understanding what it means to vote and to be able to vote and the kind of change that is possible if everybody votes.

I think that’s where things really pick up and people are much more open to it and it is really simple. What we’re doing is really simple, it is basically just a booth at a convention, some friendly people, some papers that apply across the board no matter what state you live in, you can register. Social media and smartphones make registering quick and I think as that all gets easier to do, people are realizing that it isn’t a huge effort.

It is very simple. They’re being wonderfully receptive. We’re in talks with a lot of quite big conventions and we’re confirmed for GenCon in Indianapolis. This is such a target rich environment for young folks who can pre-register, and make sure their address is up to date, and actually register to vote. It was too irresistible for us to not get it going and I think people have really seen that it is a win-win for everybody.

At these conventions, do you have any favorite stories that have come out of them? Any cool people you’ve met or cool stories around voter registration?

CT: My favorite part is looking at the photo opportunities. The cosplayers are amazing in and of themselves and then to see someone from Ultron dressed up, seven feet tall, holding an, “I voted” sign… at the one in Arizona, we had the Jedi – JP help me.

JPK: We had a guy dressed as old Luke Skywalker holding our signage and a woman who played Wonder Woman’s mother, Hippolyta. So there’s a warrior goddess holding our sign.

CT: I love that people are so surprised when you walk up, walking the floor, and ask people if they’re registered. It is always surprising when you look over and there’s a group of Sailor Moons all trying to figure out who is old enough to register and it is really fun for me talking to people. Appearing at the convention I’m often doing double duty, and it is just really fun to relate to people on a different level.

You have this kind of really friendly interaction sitting on the floor instead of being on a panel. Looking out at people you can kind of come together. I mean, we’re all Americans, we all have a say in this process, and to relate to people on a totally different level than just work. But this important component of who we are is sweet, it feels great, and it feels like you’re able to talk to people on a much, I don’t know what the word is, on a level you wouldn’t normally get.

I bet it is more meaningful for the fans as well, to get to have that connection too and know that they can relate to people they might admire on this very fundamental civic level. Like you said, we’re all Americans, we all should vote. I think that’s an amazing part.

CT: Yes, and the beauty of it is, when we were initially kicking it around, was the idea that for me, I am a fan of different franchises, and if I were a kid who was a fan of Wolverine and Steve Bloom was standing next to me while I was registering to vote, or Mark Hamill, or anybody whose work I love, it would create a relationship for the rest of my life.

So when midterms came around or any kind of opportunity to vote, not only would I have this sweet initial association with voting with registering, but through social media you have someone reaching out and patting your shoulder kind of like, “Come on man, let’s do it, we’re all in this together let’s get out there.” You know, Steve Bloom told me to vote I’m going to!

It is a change in the association people have with it, for it not being an obligation and a pain in the butt to do but something that, you have a connection with someone on that you can concentrate on while you’re out there doing your civic duty.

JPK: Something else that makes it so interesting in the level of connection we have, is when we’re at conventions talking to fans we connect with them about the fantasy world and the imaginary world we participate in via the video games, tabletop gaming, animations, whatever, which is super cool but it is also cool to deepen it into the real talk of here’s stuff that’s happening in the real world and here’s real, tangible ways in which you can affect what’s happening in the actual reality that we live in, in addition to the fantasies that we create.

Do you guys remember the first election that you voted in?

CT: (Laughs)

JPK: I was 18, I don’t remember what the issue was but it was definitely a local election in Pennsylvania and lord, I don’t remember what it was for. But I did vote.

CT: Mine was Presidential, and we won’t get into which one it is – it was a long time ago, it was Abraham Lincoln (laughs) – but I grew up in San Francisco and Berkley so I’ve always had a passion for politics and I knew, I remember arguing with my heavy metal boyfriend way back when telling him he had to vote and he would say “oh who cares” and that became a huge argument, him voting.

I wanted to touch on one other thing, which JP sort of touched on. I just love the idea that so much of what our nerd culture is about is good and evil, superheroes, and the idea that by getting involved – and so much of the time on social media I tag things #BeAHero – getting involved, and the sweetness, it is just super cool to see people having this opportunity to do things for themselves and others and be part of that process.

Be Wonder Woman, be Superman, get out, vote, help people, stay present, be involved. That is a huge theme in what we love and it is an opportunity to bring a little bit of that into our own lives.

Well, I was going to ask what is the key message you want those who aren’t registered to vote to hear from you guys, but I think I just heard it right there.

JPK: Yeah, that sounds like it.

You guys mentioned you will be doing GenCon, do you have any other events coming up in the near future?

JPK: We have a few on the docket right now, a lot of it is solidifying details with Headcount and the conventions that we’re looking at but we do have three or four big ones coming up before the midterms in November. Also our efforts are going to be on recruiting our fellow “notable nerds” to be active and on social media so even if we can’t be on the ground in someone’s local convention at least we can reach out to everybody via social media so that fans know that the people whose work they enjoy put a strong point on voter registration, participation, and democracy.

CT: And we have a website that you can actually go to, Nerdsvote.com, that has all kinds of ways that you can get involved. You can also register to vote through Headcount.org, through our site, you can buy t-shirts and all kinds of great swag at TeePublic.com/nerdsvote. We have great coffee mugs and t-shirts and that’s a way for everybody to get involved. That’s a way to get it to come from notable nerds and your fellow nerds. Some towns don’t have conventions but you can, through social media and online presence, be part of it.

If you post a picture of yourself wearing one of our t-shirts and tag @NerdsVote on Instagram and Twitter, we will happily retweet, signal boost, we’re so thrilled when people reach out to us and want to get involved or are showing us how they’re getting involved. So that’s a great way to stay in direct contact with us and the rest of our “notable nerds” posse.

Even though NerdsVote won’t be at San Diego Comic-Con nerds can still support the cause by rocking their NerdsVote t-shirts on Saturday, July 21st (and all weekend). Take a picture of yourself rocking your shirt at the con and tweet it to the above mentioned handles and the team over at NerdsVote will happily RT and signal boost your support. 

With midterms elections coming up it is extremely important that individuals realize the power of their voice, their vote, and get registered to exercise it. If you are interested in helping out at conventions with the NerdsVote crew, check out their social media for upcoming opportunities. If you’re reading this and consider yourself a “notable nerd” and want to use your platform to reach potential voters, please reach out too. 

If there’s anything the recent primary voting season has taught us it is that little steps do matter. Registering to vote takes a couple of minutes and voting can make a real difference in your community, your city, your state, and the country. 

Vote on, nerds.