LGBTQ voter registration and mobilization are still key to maintaining American democracy, especially during the current challenges of COVID-19 and Conservative Right posturing. (Photo Credit: via Adobe Stock)

A report in MarketWatch grabbed attention across the queerosphere in early December with the headline “1 in 5 LGBTQ adults isn’t registered to vote, despite high 2020 stakes.” The story was based on the University of California, Los Angeles’ Williams Institute study that found 21 percent of LGBTQ adults are not registered to vote, compared to an estimated 17 percent of non-LGBTQ adults.

There are many factors from voter suppression efforts to voter-ID laws that target transgender people creating major barriers to equitable voting opportunity in our country. Add to that the personal frustration many have with a system that seems like it is too often built against them, and you will hear more than one friend, at least in your online universe, who refuses to participate in the election. I mean, why does it matter?

Let me start by saying that I’m an adamant proponent for democracy. I plan to vote in the upcoming 2020 election, and some would even label me a political junkie. I watch every debate and scour over data trying to glean some understanding of the myriad of exit polls and campaign strategies. In this short series, qnotes is hoping to look a bit deeper at stories that explore how LGBTQ organizations get people excited about voting, and how they are addressing that “1 in 5” headline, as our community truly comes face to face with possibly the most important election of our lifetime.

With the Williams Institute’s report in mind, almost nine million LGBTQ adults are eligible to vote next November, according to a poll conducted by Ipsos in collaboration with the Williams Institute and Thomson Reuters in late 2019. Half said they were Democrats, while 22 percent were independents and 15 percent were Republicans. The sample included 136 registered LGBTQ voters and 1,836 registered non-LGBTQ voters.

Some Background

The disputed presidential election of 1876 yielded the highest voter turnout of the eligible voting age population in American history. Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel J. Tilden by one electoral vote (185-184), with 81.8 percent voter turnout.

Historically, voter turnout in a presidential election did not drop below 50 percent until 1920, the first year that women had the freedom to exercise the right at the ballot box. Scholars theorize that a combination of the ongoing beliefs that it was inappropriate for women to vote and barriers including a literacy test, residency requirements and poll taxes kept turnout low, at the same time the number of eligible voters increased drastically.

LGBTQ politics first came into play in 1952 in the wake of McCarthyism and homophobia continued to fuel campaigns through the 1960s. Following the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969, gays and lesbians began to insert themselves in presidential politics. According to LGBTQ historian David K. Johnson in a February article in The Washington Post, “the disastrous campaign of Democrat George McGovern was the first to court gay Americans.” Over the next 20 years, candidates would continue to try and lure the LGBTQ vote at the same time avoiding alienation of the vocal religious conservatives growing in the country.

According to Johnson, the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign “marked the first time that LGBT activists raised large sums of money for a presidential candidate.” Then, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed by Bill Clinton likely helped secure his re-election in 1996, despite obvious backlash from the LGBTQ community.

“The emergence of homosexuality and gay rights as explicit political issues over the past three decades and a clear polarization of party elites over LGB rights in employment (including in the military) and family recognition (civil unions, marriage, and adoption) made LGB identity politically salient by 2000,” according to a report in Politics & Policy by Gregory Lewis, Marc Rogers and Kenneth Sherrill. George W. Bush was fairly neutral on LGBTQ rights during his 2000 campaign, but Republicans used ballot initiatives barring same-sex marriage to spur turnout among conservative voters in 2004. The strategy likely helped Bush win reelection.

Non-profit LGBTQ organizations also started ramping up their resources to mobilize voters. In 2000, the Gill Foundation launched OutVote 2000, a nonpartisan effort that encouraged voter participation by LGBTQ people and included field organizing, advertising, direct mail and phone banks, online activism and public opinion research. In 2004, the theme of the Human Right Campaign’s (HRC) National Coming Out Day was “Come Out. Speak Out. Vote,” and the Victory Fund, that works to increase the number of LGBTQ people in political office, touted major victories, having its most successful year to date. “Together, we are changing the face of government and ensuring the LGBT community, with all its talents and skills, has a strong voice in policy-making arenas and increased access within the halls of power,” wrote the organization’s leaders Cindy L. Abel, Scott Widmeyer and Bill Lewis. They invested $3 million dollars in LGBT candidates in 2004 alone.

Expanded efforts by LGBTQ organizations have continued to increase voter turnout in the past 20 years and this year’s presidential primaries saw its first viable gay candidate with Pete Buttigieg, who regularly scored in the top three of Democrats running for president and won the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucus.

Record Numbers

“This presidential primary in every exit poll, in every state, shows one consistent trend: LGBTQ voters are fired up and turning out in record-high numbers,” read a recent email campaign from HRC’s National Press Secretary Lucas Acosta.

The first confirmed case of the coronavirus, COVID-19, in the United States was on Jan. 21. By Super Tuesday, there were over 100 coronavirus cases in the country and the number continues to grow exponentially.

Despite the growing concern of the virus, however, LGBTQ voters continued in historic turnout at the polls, according to Acosta. CNN exit polling found that LGBTQ people represented an average of 9.4 percent of primary voters on Super Tuesday, and in early vote states like New Hampshire and South Carolina, the percentage of LGBTQ voters more than doubled from 2016. Even in states like Florida, whose primary was on March 17 when 6,300 people in the U.S. had been diagnosed with COVID-19, 8 percent of primary voters identified as LGBTQ. The state’s LGBTQ advocacy organization, Equality Florida, put out a statement “Election Day: Protect Your Health and Democracy” the day before, proposing safety measures but emphasizing the importance of the LGBTQ vote. “We have a huge election on the horizon,” read the statement. “And we must remain focused on advancing equality for ALL Floridians.”

A total of 12 states and Puerto Rico have now pushed back their presidential primaries with many taking place on June 2.

LGBTQ people may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. A report by HRC recently pointed out that 17 percent of LGBTQ people lack health coverage and a disproportionate number of LGBTQ people work in restaurants or other industries heavily impacted by the virus. Alphonso David, executive director of HRC, said “As the world watches the spread of COVID-19, many of us, myself included, are concerned and afraid for ourselves and our loved ones. And that fear cannot be minimized. But it can be the basis for action.”

The organization has continued to increase its voter mobilization efforts this year, especially in key primary states. In November, they announced a fellowship program to energize young voters and activists in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The fellows are trained on community organizing, communications, computer programs, digital marketing and political affairs.

“If we don’t vote, we are leaving our fate, and our rights, to be determined by someone else,” said David.

In this series, we’ll continue to examine what LGBTQ organizations have done, and are doing, to mobilize people to vote, and thereby changing the conversation around LGBTQ issues in political discourse. A recent poll of qnotes readers found that 88 percent feel they have been influenced by such campaigns.

We also want to make sure that our readers are engaged with both local and national politics. Due to COVID-19, our One Charlotte Celebration with Equality NC on March 15 was postponed. We hope to reschedule this program soon and will be looking at alternative options to engage with our readers virtually around this topic. To stay informed, sign up for our email list.

This project has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems,