In this issue of qnotes’ series on what LGBTQ organizations have done, and are doing, to mobilize people to vote, the publication takes a closer look at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). The Human Rights Campaign Fund was founded by Steve Endean in 1980 as one of the first gay and lesbian political action committees in the United States. Vic Basile served as the fund’s first executive director. After its first election cycle in 1982, the fund was the 17th largest independent political action committee in the country.
According to its website, the organization today “represents a force of more than 3 million members and supporters nationwide” and is the largest national LGBTQ civil rights organization.
HRC steadily expanded its footprint at state and local levels in 2014 with Project One America to expand LGBTQ equality in the South through permanent campaigns in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. qnotes spoke with Lucas Acosta, national press secretary for campaigns at HRC, to learn more about the organization’s model of engagement. Lucas joined HRC in June 2019. At 27 years old, he has had an impressive political career. He has worked on campaigns at every level of government including those for the New York State Assembly, N.Y. District Attorney and mayoral campaigns, and the Hillary Clinton Presidential campaign.
“The one thing that HRC’s model and HRC’s work is unique for is that, obviously, all of those campaigns I’ve worked on had a voter file,” says Acosta. “They had a base set of individuals knowing their voting habits, knowing their party affiliation and knowing their addresses. HRC isn’t the Democratic Party or a Democratic Party affiliation, and so, that left a unique burden on HRC in that they needed to identify who are our voters? Who are these LGBTQ people across the nation since we don’t have census data to identify them?” The goal of the organization is two-fold. After identifying the base, they must find ways to mobilize them to be more engaged.
In 2016, HRC launched its largest get-out-the-vote effort in its then 36-year history. The multi-state targeting campaign reached well beyond the nation’s nearly 10 million LGBTQ voters to mobilize the growing ranks of allies and others with a history of supporting equality according to a press release in October 2016. “Our new model allows us to reach out directly to hundreds of thousands of voters not yet affiliated with HRC, but who have demonstrated an openness to creating a more equal and fair society,” said then HRC President Chad Griffin.
The organization worked closely with Catalist, a voter data company based in Washington, D.C. “What they were able to do with Catalist in 2016 is really gather all of the polling,” explains Acosta. “HRC has been doing this for years — trying to identify our own people. What we’ve done in those decades of work is build out a membership — identify those who self-identify as LGBTQ and get them to identify their friends and who they know.”
In North Carolina alone, HRC expected to reach more than 400,000 voters through phone calls and an online persuasive advertising campaign. The effort helped successfully defeat Pat McCrory in the state’s gubernatorial race after he targeted LGBTQ people with the notorious HB2 statute.
“Working within communities across the country has led to a very strong volunteer network,” says Acosta. For example, volunteers in the North Carolina and Charlotte steering committees work across the region to identify and build support from LGBTQ citizens and allies. “We have those across the country,” says Acosta. “In 2016, we realized that the landscape had changed. LGBTQ people were turning out in rates that were unprecedented and those turnout rates have only increased.”
According to HRC, 57 percent of North Carolina voters in 2016 said the HB2 statute was their top reason to vote for Gov. Roy Cooper.
“We knew that shifting perceptions on LGBTQ issues like same-sex marriage and non-discrimination protections, as well as the massive turnout of LGBTQ people gave us a new opportunity, and that opportunity was to expand our organizing to people whose views were aligned with ours and to people whose voting habits could be influenced by our efforts,” says Acosta. “We worked alongside Catalist using decades of polling, decades of membership data, their own records on individuals voting habits and product choices, publication subscriptions, and all of these other components to build out a model that works to identify 57 million people across the country who either identify as LGBTQ or consider themselves allies and vote on our behalf.” This formed the basis for what HRC identifies as “equality voters.”
Acosta points out the importance of the distinction beyond just LGBTQ people and of mobilizing our community’s allies. “I definitely think the number of allies in the country is larger than 57 million, that number is really people who are motivated by our issues — people who, when at the ballot box, will make a decision based on our issues.”
“When it becomes a top mobilizing tool and issue for those individual voters. When we were able to develop that model, we created our own voter file,” continues Acosta. “We now had the voting habits, the addresses, the partisan affiliation of all of these equality voters that we were then able to build out more in-depth field programs than we ever had in our history.”
In 2017, HRC launched “HRC Rising,” a massive expansion for the organization that helped more than 30,000 people register to vote, trained nearly 1,600 local advocates nationwide as volunteer leaders and logged more than 20,000 hours volunteering for HRC-endorsed candidates. Through the HRC Political Action Committee (HRC PAC), they funded a seven-figure mobilization effort to engage and turn out voters through digital advertising, direct mail, text and phone, and published ads in major newspapers urging voters to turn out for pro-equality candidates in the mid-term elections.
Acosta explains that HRC could track what tools and organizing resources were working and what was not with the data they had now compiled, that included looking retroactively to what the organization had done before the model was created. “In 2014, before the model was created — before HRC invested heavily in turning out these equality voters, turnout amongst equality voters, and again this is not just LGBTQ people because I would say this trend does not apply to LGBTQ people as much the ally part of the equality voter model, 36 percent of equality voters turned out,” says Acosta. “In 2018, after we’ve identified these voters and invested heavily in their turnout rates, in our first test of really doing this, 56 percent of equality voters turned out.
“We were able to have a dramatic increase in these voters once we identified and reached them,” says Acosta. The trend was also true in the South. “For example, in the Alabama Senate race we invested heavily. It’s a Project One America state and while Project One America isn’t specifically an electoral program, it obviously is one of our strongest presences in the South and so we wanted to make sure we put our fingerprint on that Senate race and saw a significant increase in the effectiveness of voter mobilization around LGBTQ issues.”
It is clear that the Human Rights Campaign is built on a strong membership of LGBTQ people and allied voices. Nearly all of the community have seen the popular blue square and yellow equal sign logo that has become synonymous with LGBTQ equality at Pride festivals across the country with tables full of volunteers encouraging people to get a T-shirt or bumper sticker. According to its website, “the Human Rights Campaign logo is one of the most recognizable symbols of the LGBTQ community.”
“If you are at the table, you’re probably buying a T-shirt or picking up a sticker,” says Acosta. “Depending on what you buy, at the table you become a member. We are still, in as many cases as possible, gathering your information — your email or your phone number, and then we follow up with you in one of those channels to see what your interests are. What brought you to us? So that we can then move you up in that level of engagement that you’re interested in.
“In those moments, it’s really about identifying those people and then filtering them to the right appropriate resource,” says Acosta. “Whether that’s on the political side or on the foundation side. It all comes back to the need to grow our political power and exert that force in order to be able to make change.”
In the next issue of qnotes, the staff will continue to look at HRC and what is happening as the nation heads to the 2020 presidential election, including what is not working in political messaging campaigns now.
This project has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems, solutionsjournalism.org.