Saturday, November 15, 2008

Proposition 8: Whodunit? The Mormons? The Blacks? Barack? The Gays???

BOULDER, Colorado -- There is a lot of blame being spread around for the victory of California's Proposition 8, which stripped same-sex couples of the right to marry. The New York Times has blamed the Mormons, who poured all their cash from Coca-Cola shares and Winter Olympics merchandise into the "yes" campaign. Everyone in the press seems to be stuck on the story that black people are responsible, because they don't like gays, or something. My grandfather would be disappointed in me for the amount of blame I have personally heaped on his beloved Knights of Columbus. But what is the real answer?

Well, truth be told, there really isn't one. I will strongly object to this line of argument that "black people did it," because it assumes that blacks and gays are two mutually exclusive groups. If we dig a little deeper into the polling data, it really only makes things murkier, which is exactly the point - we should not be pointing fingers at voters for the way this thing shook out, but rather at the entire ridiculous referendum process, which I will address shortly.

First, let's do a little number crunching of totally dubious exit poll numbers that would make Nate Silver throw his copy of Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract through his computer monitor, but it is the best that we can do.

Here's the data that I will be using from The Los Angeles Times also has some good maps of the voting patterns.

Proposition 8 passed by a margin of 52-48%, with a total of 11,970,000 votes cast. According to exit polls, blacks made up 10% of the electorate, and the split among them yes/no was 70/30. Political scientists and the media always treat black people as a homogeneous voting block, so maybe we should consider a 70/30 split as a step forward. But they are not the only group that sticks out in this data set - they just happen to be one of the groups that you can pick out if see them walking down the street. But people with graduate degrees make up 17% of the electorate, and their split was 60/40 against the ban - why isn't anyone talking about that? Or that 82% of Republicans, who make up 29% of the electorate, voted in favor? 61% of people over the age of 65 - 15% of the electorate - voted "yes" as well.

Many people have claimed that the fact that Barack Obama was on the ballot caused a surge in black voter turnout, and that is what carried Prop 8. Firstly, regardless of the outcome, I think that we should be happy that a larger number of blacks turned out to vote, as they are generally an underrepresented group. By my calculations, black voters made up (very, very) roughly 40% of the Democrats who voted "yes," which is disproportionate; but even if every single black Democrat voted "no" (a ridiculous assumption), the proportion of Democrats against the measure would only be 79% (in reality, 63% of self-idenitifed Democrats voted "no"), still lower than Republicans in favor (though the measure would have been defeated in this scenario). In other words, lots and lots of people in California, including some white Democrats, voted for this measure. Even if turnout was lower among blacks - say, instead of 10% of the votes were cast by blacks, 6.7% were, which is their share of California's population - and they still voted by the same margin, it would have, at best, made this an even contest.

But we shouldn't even be talking about who voted for it or against it - we should be talking about how absurd it is that a constitutional right can be stripped by a slim majority in a referendum. This shows that the whole ballot initiative process is bonkers, and California, like many other western states, is essentially subject to mob rule. If something is a right, it cannot be taken away, and the supreme court in California ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry. If gay marriage were a privilege granted by legislation, as states like Vermont argue a civil union is, then a case can be made for its revocation. The court's decision was not "legislating from the bench," and in the end, we allowed simple majority voting to be used to strip a minority of its rights, thus abrogating the very protections our democracy is meant to guarantee. This is a pattern that can be seen across the country (see map at right), but in all those other circumstances, voters preemptively banned same-sex marriage before the right was even granted, and who knows if it ever would have been.

Finally, I will object to the notion that this is in some way Barack Obama's fault. No Democratic politician really wants to touch this issue, and I don't think Obama's silence on the issue had anything to do with the fact that he didn't want to upset fellow black people. Politicians rarely talk about state ballot issues when running for national office - I didn't hear him talk about Colorado's measures to weaken unions, or Massachusetts' referendum to eliminate the state income tax, both of which are issues he talked about extensively in the federal context. Additionally, Obama barely even campaigned in California, so why spend money on an issue that he has no vested interest in, that he believes should be left to the states to decide (though in a more sensible manner than referendums), and in a state he is going to win handily anyway? Presidential campaign money should not be spent on state ballot issues; if the DNC wants to spend money on it, that's another story, but it was not Obama's call.

So we should all stop encouraging this Republican wet dream of Democratic internecine warfare of blacks vs. gays.

UPDATE: Nate Silver does the math for real, this time including the ever-important first-time voter demographic, something I neglected to do. This is why he is really, really good at his job(s), and we have a totally unknown and schizophrenic blog.

I would also recommend reading some of Ta-Nehisi Coates' commentary on Prop 8 in the Atlantic online (thanks, Peter, for both links).

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