While everyone---and I'm as guilty as the next political writer---was focusing heavily on the 2016 election, conservatives were able, yet again, to exploit the low voter turnout in off-year elections to keep racking up wins despite the general unpopularity for conservative policies. Nowhere was this more evident than in the city of Houston, which voted on Tuesday on the question of whether to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance passed by the city council back in May.
The ordinance banned discrimination based on many things, including race, age, sexual orientation, and military service. But it was the ban on discriminating against people based on gender identity that opponents used as a wedge to attack the ordinance broadly, falsely claiming that by letting trans women use women's restrooms, cis men would dress as women to rape women in public bathrooms.
The claim stinks of an urban legend---public bathrooms have snakes in the toilets and dress-wearing rapists in the stalls!---and city-wide polling data showed that citizens weren't buying it. A few weeks ago, polling showed that the ordinance was up 6 points over repeal, with 43 percent of voters supporting it and 37 percent of voters opposing it. But somehow, on Election Day, the ordinance went down in an election that wasn't even close.
What happened? Simple: Bigots were able to turn out the vote while non-bigots mostly stayed at home, assuming that this was a "small" election in an off-year and therefore one they could sit out.
To be clear, this election had higher voter turnout than usual for off-year elections in Houston, but that appears to be largely because opponents of the anti-discrimination policy were able to rally their own voters. Knowing that very few ordinary people who generally support non-discrimination laws would turn out to vote, the religious right could hammer their own people, who are notoriously gullible, with tall tales about fantastical rapes by men in dresses. Off-year elections are candy to conservatives, because they can have this kind of disproportionate influence on the ballot.
This election was high turnout for a municipal election, with 27 percent of registered voters turning out. That was nothing compared to the 59 percent voter turnout in the presidential election year of 2012.
It's not unreasonable to think the larger Houston population is smarter about these issues that the people who showed up to vote. The mayor of the city, Annise Parker (who advocated heavily for this anti-discrimination law) is not just a Democrat but is openly lesbian. Texas may be a red state, but Houston is actually quite liberal. If voters actually show up to the polls, that is.
The idea that a law allowing trans women to use women's bathrooms will somehow cause a surge of men in dresses raping women in public bathrooms should be self-evidently stupid. The advertising pushing this fear was transparent hysteria:
But many gamely tried to reason with pro-discrimination forces anyway, pointing out that many cities have passed these laws and have not had the rapists-in-dresses problem that is direly warned about. Austin, for instance, has had such a law since 2004 and all the experts interviewed by Media Matters---including the director of community advocacy at the rape crisis center, the city council mayor, and the police department---were able to safely say there are no men donning dresses to rape women in the women's bathroom.
Anyone who actually cares about safety would support this ordinance, in fact, because it helps trans people to safely choose the restroom they are most comfortable with. And if the concern is women feeling uncomfortable with men in the bathroom, then allowing business owners to force trans men into the women's room is counterproductive, as was demonstrated by an art project by trans man Michael Hughes, who took photographs of himself in the bathrooms that pro-discrimination forces think he should use: Women's rooms.
Congrats, conservatives. By demagoguing about how you want to keep "men" out of women's bathrooms, you may have just forced men into women's bathrooms. Well done.
This particular urban legend isn't just transphobic, but it also undermines efforts by actual anti-rape activists by distorting people's ideas about what rape generally looks like. "“It was about protecting our grandmoms, and our mothers and our wives and our sisters and our daughters and our granddaughters,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in celebration of this election.
That's how a sexist culture "fights" rape: By viciously attacking imaginary rapists, while simultaneously refusing to do anything about real rapists, who are generally men who know their victims. This battle doesn't even really do anything to prevent stranger rapes, as stranger rapists just wear their own clothes instead of sticking out like a sore thumb in a bad wig and a dress that their victim can easily describe. This whole debacle allowed conservatives to pretend to be anti-rape by opposing a form of rape that never actually happens, giving them cover for the next time they oppose efforts to fight actual rape that happens in the non-imaginary world.
But that was all just a side benefit of the real agenda, which is demonizing trans people and repealing an anti-discrimination law that protects not just LGBT people, but veterans, pregnant women, the elderly, the disabled, and racial minorities.
Could conservatives have done this if the vote had happened during a presidential election? It's possible, of course. Nutty urban legends have a powerful effect on the gullible minds of conservative voters and will turn out their vote no matter what year it is. But their impact would have likely been drowned out by all the ordinary people showing up to vote for president and, seeing a non-discrimination ordinance on the ballot, cheerfully voting for it. Outside of the hysterical ranks of the religious right, after all, most people tend to think anti-discrimination laws are a good thing.
This particular ordinance isn't the only example of how this works. Republicans are winning across the country, even when their views are generally unpopular. Matt Bevin, a fringe Tea Party sort, won the Kentucky governorship, even though he was lagging pretty far behind in the polls going into Election Day. But it was an off-year, which means that every Fox News-obsessive is showing up to vote while ordinary people who generally have smart opinions are too busy going to work and forgetting that there is even an election to bother showing up.
This phenomenon is likely a major reason that the Republican party is so thoroughly controlled by fringe right-wing nuts these days. They're the people who show up to every election, while more moderate and sane people frequently---understandably, since they are busy and have concerns outside of politics---forget to vote.
This has gone on so long that we are in a crisis situation. There's a lot of chatter in Democratic circles about things like Citizens United and campaign finance reform. Those are important issues, but while the issue of voter turnout is less sexy, it's almost surely the far bigger problem. Democrats need to start getting serious about improving voter turnout---advocating for Saturday elections, pushing for online or mail-in ballots, hell, pushing for mandatory voting---anything that will make off-year election turnout look more like presidential election year turnout. Because right now, Republicans are quietly exploiting this particular bug in our election system to secure a lot more power than their actual numbers should give them.