By Lorri L. Jean
I remember the night so well. It was November 4, 2008, and the Center had planned a big election party for the LGBTQ community at the Music Box Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Hundreds of people had already gathered at the venue when the networks announced, at exactly 8 p.m., that Barack Obama would become the first Black president of the United States. The crowd saw the announcement on the huge TV screens around the venue and, communally sensing the historic nature of the evening, erupted into a volcanic roar of joy.
Our joy was short-lived. Before too long, there was a murmur going around the crowd: “It looks like we’re in trouble on Proposition 8.” “The exit polls aren’t good.” “How could this be happening?”
And sure enough, California voters narrowly passed Prop 8, which amended the state constitution to include a ban on same-sex marriage. Even recalling the period that followed the 2008 election brings on a kind of PTSD for people—especially Californians—in the LGBTQ community. The days that followed were full of anger and recrimination.
As it turned out, many of the initial analyses of what caused the failure to defeat Prop 8 were incorrect. But one thing is clear: Many had taken our rights for granted. We believed that our fellow Californians would not let us down. Many younger queer people whom I spoke to over the days and weeks following the election were in a state of shock. They had assumed that, in this most liberal of states, we were long past the era of legal discrimination and social ostracism and that LGBTQ people had emerged on the other side, completely equal and fully empowered.
In those dark days following the election, I also learned another very disturbing thing: Some of the very people who took to the streets in anger following the passage of Proposition 8 had not voted.
Fast forward to 2021. In recent weeks I have been reading about the extremely low level of turnout expected in the election to recall Governor Gavin Newsom. And I have been experiencing an eerie feeling of “déjà vu all over again.” This probably shouldn’t have come as a shock to me. In our voter education and outreach work here at the Center, we use the term “low propensity voters.” These voters are people who often support us on issues that affect the LGBTQ community but are unlikely to vote for a variety of reasons. Given that this is a special election in an off year, the number of low propensity voters is likely to be even greater.
In this month’s election, voters are asked if the governor should be recalled. If a majority vote yes, he will be removed from office. Voters will also be asked who should replace the governor if the recall succeeds. And here’s the thing: It only takes a plurality for the replacement candidate to win. There are 46 candidates running to replace Newsom should the recall succeed. You can see how this turns the notion of a democratic election on its head. Just imagine this scenario: 49% of the electorate votes to keep the governor in office, but nonetheless, the recall narrowly passes. Given the huge number of candidates, the vote to replace him would be split 46 different ways and the new governor could win with 10% of the vote—or even less!
I know this may sound like I am being an “election nerd,” but this is a very important distinction for the LGBTQ community. There are a number of candidates in the recall election who have made statements and taken public stances that are openly hostile to LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities. As I’ve just made clear, someone with anti-LGBTQ views could win with a very small percentage of the votes.
This is why I am so unsettled by the newspaper articles saying that turnout will be so low. The people who oppose equal rights for our community are highly motivated by their homophobic and transphobic views, and they will vote.
It is fair to assume that one of the reasons many people don’t vote, especially in our progressive state, is their belief that we have moved past the old prejudices and orthodoxies that marginalized and demonized queer and trans people. But the lesson of 2008 is that we cannot solely rely on others to ensure that our rights are protected. Our community fought back after the passage of Proposition 8 and has seen tremendous progress in the last 13 years. But we can never take that progress for granted.
As a non-profit service organization, the Center does not endorse candidates. So, I will be clear in stating that I am not suggesting you should vote one way or another on the recall. But we must also be clear that elections matter and, given the high stakes involved, I urge you to vote on September 14. Our rights, our human dignity, and our very lives depend on it.
To facilitate your involvement, here is some helpful information on the election:
1. Register to vote: If you are eligible, you can register to vote or update your registration online at registertovote.ca.gov. If you would like to fill out a physical form, voter registration applications can be found at post offices and libraries. You must re-register to vote if you move, change your name, or change your political party preference. The deadline to register to vote is August 30. If you do not register before the deadline, you can still complete the Same-Day Voter Registration process and request your ballot in person at your county elections office or polling location.
2. Vote: Every registered voter will get a mail-in ballot. You can return your ballot by mailing it, dropping it off at a Mail Ballot Drop box, or polling location. You can also vote in person. 3. Turn out the LGBTQ vote: If you want to help turn out pro-LGBTQ vote, come volunteer with the Center’s Policy and Community Building department (with COVID protocol)!
For more information, check out lalgbtcenter.org/vote