On Election Day, voters in three diverse states cast ballots on how the law would treat some of the country’s most stigmatized groups of people: transgender Americans, undocumented immigrants, and individuals who have been convicted of a felony. To the surprise of many, voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots in support of these three communities.
In Florida, 65 percent of voters moved to restore the voting eligibility of those convicted of felonies, returning that right to 1.4 million potential voters. In Oregon, 63 percent of the electorate voted to maintain that state’s 30-year-old sanctuary law protecting immigrants from being rounded up by local law enforcement. And in Massachusetts, 68 percent of voters rejected an initiative to deny transgender citizens access to public accommodations, including restrooms that correspond with their lived gender.
Having had the chance to work closely with each of these efforts, and having worked for many years to win marriage equality, I believe that advocates succeeded against the odds because they were effective in strengthening an authentic human connection between voters and each affected group. This allowed voters to practice empathy with their vote and, in the words of Desmond Meade, the leader of the Florida effort, “take an act of love.”
Many voters approach such issues with deep internal conflict. On marriage equality, voters in California repealed that right in 2008 by approving Proposition 8. In a post-mortem analysis involving 25 focus groups and a lengthy survey, Democratic pollster Amy Simon found that many California voters “were powerfully conflicted, caught between two deep-seated sentiments: On the one hand, a desire to be fair and compassionate toward their fellow man; on the other, a loyalty to what they saw as the ironclad teachings of religion, tradition, or culture.”
Our remedy in the marriage battles, and what this year’s campaigns each did successfully, was to build a connection between the affected group and voters through the sharing of genuine human stories. In Florida, thousands of directly impacted individuals, organized by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, spoke honestly about how they’d made a mistake in the past, paid their dues to society, and now deserved a second chance to participate in our democracy. FRRC organized people from every walk of life—Republicans and Democrats, white, black, Latino, rural, suburban, urban—so that voters could see themselves in at least some of the stories. As citizens heard those personal appeals directly and consistently, they seemed to be much more able to connect to those individuals and apply some of their most deeply held values—forgiveness, redemption, treating others the way they’d want to be treated—to those who had been convicted of a felony and were now denied the right to vote.
In Massachusetts, voters got to know the story of 15-year-old transgender teenager Ian and his father, who were the centerpiece of the Freedom for All Massachusetts advertising campaign. The ad opens with Ian’s father saying, “I love my kids and I’d do anything to protect them,” expressing a notion that most every parent can identify with. “For me,” he continues, “that includes taking care of my transgender son, Ian.”
The viewer then sees Ian interacting with his family, playing with his dog, and meeting up with others at a restaurant. Ian closes by asking viewers to “protect Massachusetts kids like me.” The spot does a great job of universalizing the experience of this family, making them less of an “other.” Viewers can see Ian’s family as they are—an ordinary one, with parents looking out for their children no matter what adversities they face and children who simply want to be themselves and be happy.
The deeper the connection—between the voter and members of the group in question and their families—the more voters seem to be able to see their deepest values reflected in sometimes controversial campaigns for basic equality and dignity.
The flip side of generating empathy in these battles is the need to combat fear. The opposition’s most effective approach has historically been to deploy fear in order to sow doubt and prevent feelings of connection. The anti–marriage equality efforts of the recent past repeatedly deployed in advertisements the ugly and untrue bugaboo that allowing gays to marry would harm children. As Frank Schubert, the lead strategist behind the Prop 8 campaign, said, California voters “would entertain allowing gay marriage, but not if doing so had significant implications for the rest of society.”
The opposition to the Massachusetts law protecting transgender people employed its usual approach in one ad: presenting a scary-looking man lurking in a women’s locker room while a young woman is getting dressed. With ominous music playing in the background, the ad’s voice-over says that under the law, “any man who says he is a woman can enter a women’s locker room, dressing room, or bathroom at any time—even convicted sex offenders.” As another example of this type of fearmongering, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Oregon in September 2017 to argue against that state’s sanctuary law, claiming that “police may be forced to release pedophiles, rapists, murderers, drug dealers, and arsonists back into communities.”
The respective civil rights campaigns this year countered these fear tactics effectively, enlisting trusted validators—especially law enforcement—to make the case that these arguments are false and that siding with these marginalized groups strengthens communities rather than making them less safe. For the last several weeks of the campaign, Oregonians saw either a district attorney or a cop arguing against the anti-sanctuary amendment. The district attorney of rural Deschutes County argued that any passage of the anti-sanctuary law “makes my job harder” because it would “make more Oregonians afraid to report crimes or testify as witnesses.” That, he argued, would “leave … our neighborhoods less safe.”
In Massachusetts, a retired police chief along with an advocate for sexual assault victims argued that “since state law began protecting transgender people from discrimination, there’s been no increases in public safety incidents in places like restrooms.” And in Florida, retired Miami-Dade prosecutor Gary Winston acknowledged that people make mistakes but that “when a debt is paid, it’s paid.”
One additional way these campaigns were able to engender the trust of voters was by consciously demonstrating that they should not be partisan issues. In Florida, this was especially important, as some wondered if backers of the amendment were more focused on re-enfranchising those convicted of felonies or on expanding votes for Democrats. Campaign executive committee member the Alliance for Safety and Justice worked hard to secure strong support from across the ideological spectrum, from the Koch Brothers–affiliated Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce and the Christian Coalition as well as from more expected supporters like the ACLU.* When voters see that kind of cross-partisan showing, it seems that they are much more apt to take off skeptical partisan lenses and really listen to the arguments being presented. In Florida, that was critical to the effort to get the 60 percent the re-enfranchisement law needed to pass.
So many of our deepest political struggles come down to a battle between genuine empathy and fear. By sharing relatable personal stories, fighting back hard against fear tactics, and demonstrating support from unexpected voices, advocates in these three fights were able to win, and win big. In doing so, they provided a road map for those fighting the next round of battles for equal rights in America.
Update, Nov. 26, 2018: This sentence has been updated to include the precise campaign organization that sought to secure broad bipartisan support for the effort.