That #MeTooVoter Debate Question Was Just the Beginning

During last month’s Democratic presidential debate, Moderator Kristen Welker asked former vice president Joe Biden if there were specific measures he would take as president to address gender-based violence and sexual harassment. Biden’s response racked up headlines (yes, he did say we should keep “punching” at domestic violence), but the question itself represented a watershed moment.

That was the first time sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement were addressed in more than 4,000 presidential debate questions in two decades.

Elevating the issue of gender-based violence and harassment to the presidential debate stage was the goal of the #MeTooVoter campaign launched in October by #MeToo founder Tarana Burke; Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; Justice for Migrant Women president Mónica Ramírez; and Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center. The campaign aims to hold politicians accountable for addressing gender-based violence and harassment—and to give the millions of people who have raised their hands to say “#MeToo” a way to flex their political power.  

“People don’t talk about the fact that survivors have many different roles that we play—there isn’t a one size fits all when it comes to who survivors are and what survivors look like,” Ramírez said during a call announcing the #MeTooVoter campaign. “Survivors are powerful as constituents and as voters.”  

Now that the question has been asked on the debate stage, a new question arises. How can a movement that’s profoundly impacted the ways in which our culture discusses and perceives gender-based violence and harassment, achieve real change in the political realm? “The whole point of #MeTooVoter is to say that survivors are a huge political force,” Poo said. “We’re going to call on anyone who’s serious about governing and leading this country forward to answer for how they’re going to make this country more safe.”

In February 2018, six months after the #MeToo hashtag went viral, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation partnered with Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research to find out if voters viewed sexual harassment as a motivating issue. They found that voters from all walks of life agree that it’s a serious problem and are willing to make it an issue at the ballot box. 

“The majority of voters said they wouldn’t vote for someone who had been accused of sexual harassment or wouldn’t do anything to address it,” said Amanda Hunter, Research and Communications Director, with the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “Millennial women in particular were fed up and mobilized by the issue.”

In the 2018 election, #MeToo increased turnout, noted Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners and a leading Democratic pollster. Despite the fact that survivors of gender-based violence have historically stayed at home on Election Day, #MeToo voters turned out in unusually large numbers. 

Their motivation hasn’t gone away. “We’re in a completely different moment for women’s political engagement,” Hunter said. “After the Women’s March and the wave of women elected in 2018, we’ve really started this new chapter in women’s political activation. And it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.” 

That increased political activation has translated to progress at the state and local level. Fifteen states have passed new laws protecting workers form sexual harassment, and state legislators have introduced close to 200 bills to strengthen protections against workplace harassment, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Congress has advanced bills such as the BE HEARD in the Workplace (BE HEARD) Act, the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and others.

Yet so much more is needed—from the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act to funding to address the backlog of rape kits to the restructuring of legal processes to ensure they are trauma and survivor-informed. In order for new policies to be created, and for existing policies and protocols to be enforced, violence and harassment need to remain in the political mainstream.  

“The absence of our national leaders and candidates talking about these issues sends a message that these issues are not priorities,” Laura Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center told Ms. “If it’s not addressed by our leaders the type of change that needs to happen, won’t happen.” 

As Burke wrote in Time magazine in October, none of the Democratic presidential candidates have prioritized gender-based violence and harassment as a platform issue. René Redwood, CEO of Redwood Enterprises and a leading diversity expert, suggests that candidates aren’t talking about gender-based violence and harassment because they don’t know how to talk about it. 

“We have to give them some language by which they can talk about it as an important issue. We don’t have a cogent approach to how we address it,” Redwood said. “How do we give space to right the wrongs? What do we mean as far as reparative sustained behaviors? How do you do time for the crime?”

Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor of politics at Scripps College and an expert on politics and policies surrounding sexual violence, believes that the issue must be viewed through both a cultural and a political lens—with tremendous public health implications.

“This is a public health issue of epic proportion. It is having disastrous effects on individuals, on our societal well-being and our economic well-being. This is a multi-faceted problem. How we choose to approach sexual violence as an issue is so incredibly important to having a healthy society,” Tyson said. “This doesn’t have to be about whether you yourself are a survivor of sexual assault, it’s about making a statement that I don’t want to live in a society where sexual assault is accepted, tolerated, overlooked and apologized for.” 

But for the #MeTooVoter campaign, elevating the issue onto the presidential debate stage is just the beginning. A growing coalition of organizations and individuals is mobilizing to ensure that the issue becomes an important part of the 2020 election. In the meantime, #MeToo voters are encouraged to continue to raise their voices and demand more from their leaders. 

“We’ve seen our power to change culture,” Poo said. “If we can replicate that in the political space, American politics will never be the same.” 


Emilie Surrusco is the founder of Ellsworth Media Group, where she works with organizations and individuals fighting to move a progressive agenda in Washington, D.C. She previously served in a variety of non-profits as a communications specialist, including roles as Speechwriter at the American Bar Association and Press Secretary at Feminist Majority Foundation.