Barack Obama and Mitt Romney represent very different agendas on civil liberties issues. While it is possible that the Republican Party of 2016 may produce a nominee with a better civil liberties platform, the Party of 2012 - influenced by the regressive and nationalistic Tea Party movement - has a radically authoritarian agenda.
1. The Supreme Court.The chair of Mitt Romney's Judicial Advisory Committee is the notorious Robert Bork, who was rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1987 due to his radical Christian Dominionist beliefs. Ted Kennedy's famous "Robert Bork's America" speech outlines the policy priorities of Bork, who has been specifically cited by Romney as a model for the sort of Supreme Court justices he intends to appoint.
When the next presidential term ends in January 2017, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 83 years old, Anthony Kennedy will be 80, and Stephen Breyer will be 79. If even one of these three justices feel like retiring between now and then, and a Republican president selects their replacement, there is a very good chance that Roe v. Wade will be overturned.
Even if you don't care about abortion, this is going to be a pretty big deal. Since Roe v. Wade is inextricably connected to the implicit constitutional right to privacy, striking down Roe also means striking down other right-to-privacy cases such as Griswold v. Connecticut (which legalized hormonal contraception) and Lawrence v. Texas (which legalized gay sex). Given what some Tea Party-influenced state legislatures have already attempted with respect to birth control and LGBT rights, leaving this issue to the states, with no federal civil rights protections, is a frightening prospect.
The Supreme Court issue is so serious that it was the sole reason for my About.com: Civil Liberties endorsement of Barack Obama over John McCain four years ago.
2. Investigation of voter suppression.According to a recent poll, 94% of likely black voters support Obama and 0% support Romney. Even in past elections, when the GOP candidate has used less racially polarizing rhetoric, 88% to 90% of black voters tend to identify as Democratic. This means that the Republican Party can actually win elections by suppressing black turnout, and this has influenced the GOP policy platform. As one Ohio Republican Party chair put it: "I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban -- read African-American -- voter-turnout machine."
Although we didn't know it at the time, the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division under George W. Bush actively sabotaged civil rights investigations having to do with black voter suppression. It is no coincidence that the Bush administration ignored this issue, since the Florida Secretary of State's "error" - which purged 5,000 valid, registered black voters from the 2000 voter rolls - gave Bush the presidency in the first place. Under Romney, and especially under a Romney Supreme Court, it's a safe bet that conservative states' efforts to reduce black voter turnout will become more bold and aggressive.
Politicians who support suppression of black voters aren't just advocating racist policies (though they're certainly doing that); they're also attacking the foundation of liberal democracy itself. Voters should choose politicians, not the other way around.
3. Comprehensive immigration reform, beginning with the DREAM Act.In a country where 70% of Latino voters vote Democratic, it is in Mitt Romney's political interests to ensure that U.S. citizens born to undocumented Latino parents are deported before they're old enough to vote - and certainly in his political interests to ensure that undocumented Latino residents do not themselves become eligible to vote. While Obama's record on deportations has been dismal, the fact that his party would politically benefit from deferred-action and path-to-citizenship proposals means that he has no reason not to pursue comprehensive immigration reform.
4. Drones.While American Conservative columnist Glenn Greenwald has correctly called attention to the human cost of the U.S. government's drone strikes overseas, he consistently fails to mention that Mitt Romney has advocated expanding the program. This would make good political sense for Romney, as 74% of Republicans support the drone strikes (relative to only 58% of Democrats).
Intraparty division over the drone strikes places some pressure on Obama to adopt checks and balances, and pay closer attention to the way drone strikes are used; Romney, on the other hand, would be under pressure from those in his party to remove the few checks and balances that currently exist. Jill Stein and Gary Johnson are acceptable third-party protest candidates, but if you're more interested in actually reducing the incidence of drone strikes than you are in airing your opinion, voting for Obama - and then putting pressure on him from within the party apparatus - is your best shot.
5. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act.Romney has made it clear that he opposes the Employment Discrimination Act "at the federal level," which is the only level where the ENDA has been proposed. Barack Obama is a longtime supporter of the legislation.
While same-sex marriage (which Obama supports and Romney opposes) is the more visible LGBT rights issue, it is employers' ability to target and fire LGBT employees with impunity that contributes to the decision many people make not to come out and become activists. Passing ENDA would reduce this fear - making the marriage equality movement, and every other LGBT rights movement, stronger.