The Dangers of Low Voter Turnout

Thu. March 22, 2012 12:00 AM
by Waymon Hudson

There certainly is a definable lack of enthusiasm in voters as the GOP presidential primary fight marches through the states. In the Illinois Tuesday primary vote, for example, only 308,063 of 1,288,293 registered voters bothered to hit the polls in Chicago (breaking down as 47,233 Republican, 260,684 Democratic, 111 Green Party, and 35 nonpartisan voters). Voter turnout was in the low 20%, making it the lowest turnout for a presidential primary in over 70 years- a phenomena echoed in many of the previous primary states. While the voter apathy could be chalked up to Obama's uncontested Democratic presidential primary and the lackluster Republican primary clown car candidates, low voter turnout has real consequences in every race up and down the ticket.

If the trend holds, low voter turnout and lack of enthusiasm could have a larger impact in the November elections, especially when it comes to LGBT rights. Certainly the November presidential election itself has huge consequences for LGBT rights on a national level. GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney is running on a virulently anti-gay platform of reinstating "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", defending the odious "Defense of Marriage Act" in the courts, and passing a federal constitutional ban on marriage equality, among many other anti-equality stances he's been driven too by an extremely right-wing primary electorate. While Romney's lack of energizing the GOP base may be good for equality issues on the ballot, the assumption by many fair-minded voters that Obama could easily beat the weaker Romney could continue the voter apathy trend on the progressive side, which may trickle down the ticket to other important issues.

Beyond just the extremely important presidential race, the state-level fights for equality continue to pile up. In 2012, the legislatures in Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington passed marriage equality bills that have not yet taken effect. Work continues in New Jersey to override the governor's veto, while in Maryland and Washington, ballot measures to block marriage equality must be defeated in November. States like North Carolina are also fighting far-reaching marriage equality and civil union bans like Amendment 1 in November. In Illinois, the momentum to legislative move from civil unions to full marriage rights for same-sex couples continues to build, but more votes are needed in the state legislature. By voting in more supportive state legislators and governors, we can not only help our future pushes for state-level equality, but provide a much-needed barrier to conservative led rollbacks on existing laws.

Even further down the ballot, there are sure to be a record number of openly LGBT and equality-supporting politicians that need every vote possible, including mayors, city council members, school boards, and fair-minded judges. These people can make huge differences in the lives of the LGBT community from passing strong bullying laws to local LGBT-inclusive public accommodation protections to making fair judicial decision that treat LGBT people and families with respect. Low turnout can have an even higher effect on these smaller races with huge local impact- an effect already seen in the low turnout states in the primary season.

All of these advances towards equality are also put in danger by the coordinated efforts of Republican-controlled states to pass "voter ID laws" that in reality disenfranchise young people, minorities, and the elderly in huge numbers. In total, some 32 states have moved to pass tough voter laws restricting early voting, making it harder to register to vote, or requiring ID that many voters don't have while no longer allowing things like student IDs. These laws all seek to further suppress a progressive vote, making the need to fight voter apathy and low turnout even greater for people that care about LGBT rights.

That's why the large turnout of fair-minded voters is extremely important for the political races on all levels, from the President down to state legislators, judges, referendums, and local city commissions. While conservative voters may not be as fired up as in years past, the roadblocks created to suppress progressive voters will make this an extremely close election-- and an important one as we seek to build on the momentum of recent wins for LGBT civil rights.

Combating voter apathy and low turnout is always a challenge, but we have a responsibility to not only go out and vote, but to educate ourselves and those around us on the issues we care about. Equality comes from all levels of government, from the local ordinances protecting LGBT people to the national fight to repeal DOMA or pass LGBT employment protections like ENDA. Every race matters as we work to build not only momentum towards full equality but also a more just and representative government that reflects the ever-growing diversity of our country.