Rae Leiner is the new Field Director with the National LGBTQ Task Force and they already have an incredibly important task: mobilizing queer voters for tomorrow’s midterm elections.
“I saw [my role] as an opportunity to be engaged on the ground, using civic engagement,” Leiner tells GO over Zoom, when we connected in the final weeks leading into the midterms. “Moving people to the polls, doing voter education, building relationships with folks at a moment where there’s just a lot at stake.”
These stakes are pretty serious, too. The midterm elections will determine which party has control of the House and Senate. Republicans have already introduced a federal ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, modeled after the one passed in Florida earlier this year, and have floated the idea of a national abortion ban, both of which they could enact if they regain control of both chambers.
On the local level, the midterms will also determine who goes to state legislatures, governors’ mansions, and school boards, all of which have become battlegrounds for LGBTQ+ rights, and the rights of other marginalized groups. And with some states enacting new identification restrictions on voters, more LGBTQ+ Americans than ever before could face barriers to the ballot.
For Leiner, it was “imperative to get involved in that fight.”
Leiner’s efforts are part of The Task Force’s Action Fund, a grassroots network that promotes LGBTQ+ rights nationwide. Through its Queer the Vote initiative, the Action Fund is engaging queer voters by using community outreach, in partnership with local organizations in battleground states. The mission: to educate voters on the issues at stake in local elections, and to provide them with vital tools for voting.
To accomplish these goals, the Action Fund runs a variety of both on-the-ground and remote outreach, including advertising, canvassing efforts and phone banks inspired by Ballroom “kikis” – traditionally, spaces reserved for social gatherings – which are here used as virtual training grounds for volunteers conducting voter outreach and education.
“Queer the Vote is really encompassing of building the power, doing the political education and supporting on-the-ground leadership to educate folks to understand that, despite all the different tactics that have been employed to take away our vote, especially communities at the intersections of oppression – Black communities, formerly incarcerated folks, people who just got their citizenship, low income communities – there is power in our votes,” Leiner says. “All of these tactics are being used and targeted because our votes matter.”
In Florida, for example, where The Action Fund is concentrating Queer the Vote outreach this year, a 2021 bill now places new restrictions on vote-by-mail ballots, drop boxes, and on voter registration, which requires the presentation of a driver’s license or state-issued ID. The state is one of many that have passed such restrictions following debunked allegations of voter fraud fueled by the former president and his supporters after the 2020 election. Although proponents of such measures say they are intended to protect the integrity of voting, opponents allege such legislation is a form of voter suppression, targeting minority communities.
Florida has also become the front line in the culture wars, with Republican Governor Ron DeSantis promoting a conservative agenda with regards to LGBTQ+ content in school curriculums, racial inequality, and Covid mask and vaccine policies. He has openly endorsed numerous conservative candidates leading into this year’s elections, including in non-partisan school board races, throwing his support behind candidates who embrace his platforms, including enforcement of the Parental Rights in Education Act – also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill – which restricts LGBTQ+ content in schools. Of the 30 candidates he’s endorsed, 19 won their race outright in the August election cycle, and six will compete in run-offs this November.
All this made Florida a place “where we knew we had to throw down,” Leiner says. Queer the Vote concentrated its efforts initially into school board races in Polk and Hillsboro counties, which featured DeSantis-backed candidates. (Two of those candidates, in Hillsboro, prevailed in the August elections. The race in Polk County will go to a run-off in November.) Now, as the general election approaches, The Action Fund has pivoted its get-out-the-vote efforts to the Attorney General race where Democrat Aramis Ayala is challenging Republican incumbent Ashley B. Moody.
Although the campaign isn’t endorsing either candidate, the race is critical to Queer the Vote efforts. The Attorney General would have the power to challenge the constitutionality of state legislation. Ayala has expressed concerns about the constitutionality of DeSantis-backed legislation, including the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, abortion bans, and congressional redistricting, the Tallahassee Democrat reports. She is considered a long-shot for victory, as is DeSantis’ opponent for governor, former Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Christ.
These efforts by The Action Fund connect people “so that they know each other, so that they can do things like create a voting plan, and that can include [something] just as simple as, ‘I’m going to vote, will you go with me, I don’t have a car,’” Leiner says. Although voter attention is often drawn to the national elections, the Queer the Vote campaign mobilizes voters for smaller, local elections as well – including by drawing from a pool of volunteers nation-wide to engage voters in local school board and state’s Attorney General races.
In addition to organizing and training volunteers in phone bank “kikis” to reach out to voters directly, The Action Fund is also partnering with local organizations like Florida Rising and Florida Equality to provide on-the-ground resources for local voters. It’s part of its effort to build deep relationships with grassroots organizations working specifically to engage marginalized communities politically.
To draw further awareness to the critical issues facing LGBTQ+ voters ahead of the election, The Action Fund is also engaged in ad campaigns, in partnership with Equality Texas and Equality Florida, that raise awareness of what it calls “extremist attacks” on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights in those states. The campaigns highlight Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s comments that he would defend the state’s anti-sodomy law should the Supreme Court overturn a ruling that restricts such bans.
Through such engagement, The Action Fund estimates that it has increased voter mobilization by 3.8% – a not insignificant number, given the slim margin of victory in many races.
“There is power in our votes,” Leiner says. Attacks on voters’ rights, and on the LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities wouldn’t come “as frequently as they do if we didn’t see an increase in progressive votes being cast, and progressive candidates being put into key positions. Queer the Vote is here to help envigorate the power of the vote.”
“There’s power here, [in our community].”
Queer the Vote will run daily “kikis” leading up to Tuesday’s elections. You can connect online through the National LGBTQ Task Force.