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Prop 8 Revisited

A friend of mine believes that the reason California voters passed a ban on same sex marriage was due to black turnout in the 2008 election. His theory is that black voters who turned out to vote for Barack Obama also voted for Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to limit marriage to one man and one woman. It is true that many religious conservatives organized in support of Proposition 8 and many many blacks identify themselves as evangelical Christians. Many of those black voters did turn out for Obama. Is it fair to conclude that having a black presidential candidate on the ballot resulted in the loss of marriage equality in California? I don’t agree and believe the answer is not so simple.

There are a number of factors in how Prop 8 won in 2008, and I believe one factor is the number of voters who failed to vote either yes or no. My firsthand experience was as a poll worker in the 2008 general election. I usually work at my neighborhood polling place in West Berkeley. My city, which is in Alameda County, has a worldwide reputation for liberalism, so it is not surprising that Obama won my city and county by a large margin over John McCain. Presidential elections usually have higher turnouts than other elections, and this one was unusually high. A number of voters admitted they had shown up because there was an African American on the ballot. These include voters of various races and ages. With people lining up out the door to vote, I did notice how quickly people moved to and from the voting booths. As with every general election, California voters faced a long ballot, that included numerous state and local candidates, as well as state and local propositions. Prop 8 was among 12 state propositions. I suspected that many people were leaving without voting the full ballot.

After years of hearing the argument my friend was making, I decided to investigate my theory that we could have gotten more votes to defeat Prop 8 if people had taken a few extra minutes on their ballots. I downloaded the Registrar of Voters report on the 2008 results and have uploaded it as a Google Doc to share with you here.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1wfPXUmwFJ5TzZtVW9XcmJzOU0/edit?usp=sharing

I compared four counties with large black populations. These are also generally liberal counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I added up the total of votes cast in both the Prop 8 and presidential races. I put those numbers in a spreadsheet that I am sharing here, also as a Google Doc.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AlwfPXUmwFJ5dG5hVHBiRHVGWmVMLW54OU1pdVN5ZUE&usp=sharing

Obama won all four counties by large margins. Prop 8 lost in three counties by large margins and passed in Los Angeles County by a small margin, 50.1% to 49.9%. As I suspected many of those who showed up at the polls failed to cast a vote on Prop 8. Statewide, there was a difference of 159,334. The difference in the four counties I compared was 96,151. These people left the polls leaving the Prop 8 space blank. Why? I am sure many were in a hurry and had to get somewhere, like work or school. Many don’t have time to study all the issues being presented to them and want to reserve their votes for issues where they are more confident. Maybe, people were confused and didn’t want to vote the wrong way. Or maybe they just weren’t interested or interested enough to take a few extra moments to express an opinion. Somehow, over 150K voters who were concerned enough to select a new president decided to take a pass on gay marriage.

Of course, 150K is less than the 600K votes that would have been needed to defeat Prop 8, but it would have been a big chunk. Add to this the number of voters who didn’t vote at all. How many of these gave up waiting in line at their polling place or who failed to send in their vote-by-mail ballots? Could we have motivated those voters to show up for us?

A month after that election, I saw Gus Van Sant’s Milk when it opened in San Francisco. Although it came a month too late, it contained an important lesson that we could have learned from Harvey Milk on how to win gay rights at the ballot box. The ballot proposition then was the Briggs Initiative. In 1978, John Briggs wanted to ban gays and lesbians from working as public school teachers. The premise was to protect children from gay people. Milk correctly identified the issue as having nothing to do with children and everything to do with civil rights. Opponents of the proposition were able to frame the issue as an attempt to deny teachers their civil rights. That was how they were able to defeat Briggs.

That is how we should have been able to frame the argument against Prop 8, as a matter of fairness, equality, and civil rights. Unfortunately, we let proponents in 2008  convince voters it was about protecting school children. Worse, we failed to convince enough people that this was an issue that concerned them. It looks like we have finally learned that lesson because the results of the 2012 elections were much different. When seen as a civil rights issue, people will take the time to vote for what is right.

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February 15, 2014 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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