Implicit referendums on the freedom to marry

Posted by Josh Goodman on

"This year, we have a truce in one front of the culture wars. Unless I'm mistaken, for the first time since 1996 no state will be voting on marriage equality in an even-numbered year.

"In fact, so far as I can tell we won't have any gay rights issues on the ballot. No civil unions, no gay adoption bans, no nothing.

"The reason for the lack of action isn't really that passions about gay rights issues are much less than they were a few years ago. Instead, most states simply are happy with the decisions they've already made. Most conservative states have banned the freedom to marry in their constitutions. A few more liberal states have legalized marriage equality. New state action is likely only to happen incrementally, as views on the subject change or political power in state capitals shifts.

"All of that is good news for anyone with disdain for the culture wars. But, it's bad news for anyone trying to figure out how the American people feel about marriage for same-sex couples. Polling on the freedom to marry is inconsistent, with at least one survey showing a majority supports nuptials for same-sex couples, while others still show a broad majority opposed. The votes on the freedom to marry have been a convenient way to keep tabs on the true state of public opinion, but now we don't have any votes.

"At least, we don't have any votes explicitly on marriage equality. There are a few elections going on around the country this year that are substantially about marriage rights for same-sex couples and that, therefore, can be seen as a crude guide as to the state of public opinion.  They include:

"-Iowa Supreme Court races. David Baker, Michael Streit and Marsha Ternus, three judges that joined in the Iowa Supreme Court's unanimous decision legalizing the freedom to marry, are up on retention votes. They've been targeted by social conservatives, including former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats. In these races, marriage equality really is the only issue (well, perhaps along with the politicization of the judicial system).

"-New York State Senate Democratic Primaries, 32nd District and 33rd District. Even though eight states hold primaries on September 14, with several nominations for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House up for grabs, you'd be hard-pressed to find more consequential elections than these two New York Senate primaries. The Bronx-based 32nd and 33rd districts are represented by Ruben Diaz Sr. and Pedro Espada, respectively. Both are opponents of the freedom to marry whose "no" votes contributed to the surprisingly lopsided rejection of the idea by the New York Senate last year. Both face challenges by fellow Democrats who favor marriage equality. As a result, both races have centered heavily, though not exclusively, on marriage.

... "-California Lieutenant Governor. Ever since he authorized his city to start allowing marriages of same-sex couples in 2004 -- upending the presidential election in the process -- Gavin Newsom has been, for better or for worse, the face of the marriage equality movement in California. Opponents of the freedom to marry used Newsom's words heavily (and seemingly effectively) in their campaign to pass Prop. 8 in 2008. While there are plenty of other things for Newsom and Republican nominee Abel Maldonado to talk about, their contest will be the closest thing we get to a referendum on the freedom to marry in California this year.

"There are lots of other contests that have implications for the future of marriage. The race for governor in Minnesota (if Democrat Mark Dayton wins, the state may legalize the freedom to marry) and the campaign for control of the Indiana House (if Republicans take control, they'll likely try to forbid it in the state constitution) come to mind. But, in those races marriage equality will be, at most, a secondary issue. The places where the freedom to marry is a primary issue are Iowa, New York and California."

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