Proposition 8 is not a strictly Californian issue. It is an initiative of national consequence and its underlying strategic principles are redefining the same-sex marriage debate in DC. To restate the obvious, the results of the Prop 8 vote flew in the face of political convention. The population of a relatively liberal and historically gay-friendly state voted for a heterosexual definition of marriage. To many, it signaled a break between popular ideology and the viewpoints of elected officials.
The result of the Prop 8, along with the passage of similar ballot initiatives in Florida and Arizona, has lead many gay marriage opponents to believe that they’ve found their adversaries’ Achilles’ heel: when put to the question, populations will vote against legalizing homosexual marriage. With momentum in DC gathering for legalization, this idea has already begun manifesting itself. As Tom reported this morning, a group called “Stand 4 Marriage D.C.” has applied for a marriage definition referendum with the Board of Elections. If the application is approved, they will need to collect over 20,000 signatures to have it placed on the ballot next year.
The initiative faces a significant hurdle in getting past its application stage. It could be denied for discriminating based on sexuality, thereby violating the Human Rights Act and making it untenable under District law. If this happens, Stand 4 Marriage would have still have legal recourse to question whether gay marriage falls under equal protection. While the Federal Courts have yet to rule on the issue, numerous state courts have found that it does. For this reason, the efficacy of the proposed ballot initiative seems questionable.
Assuming that the referendum does pass the Election Board and collects the necessary signatures, its success is not assured. DC is a liberal city, but Prop 8 demonstrated that this is not a reliable indicator of how voting would result. Initiative proponents are banking on the support of DC’s large African American demographic. Exit polling in California suggested that black voters strongly supported Prop 8 despite identifying themselves as liberals. Many experts have postulated that this tipped the balance in favor of Prop 8. Considering that DC’s African American population percentage is higher than California’s, the effect of this demographic would obviously be more significant. This theory is lent credence by the spate of African American ministers backing the proposed referendum. On the other hand, DC’s GLBT demographic is also significantly larger than California’s.
Truth be told, Prop 8 provides no guarantee of how the voting will pan out. Washingtonians are not Californians and can’t be expected to vote as such. If Prop 8 has taught anything, it’s not to assume. Still, it is an interesting case study in demographic support for the issue and can’t be wholly discounted. If the referendum were to pass, it would be a significant blow to same-sex marriage supporters, but would still leave room for legal challenges, counter-initiatives and (dare I say it) Congressional intervention. If it were to fail, it would effectively sound the death knell for same-sex marriage opposition in the District as popular and legal support would be against it. Still, a ballot initiative would be a significant threat to the gay marriage movement in DC and represents the best shot that same-sex marriage opponents have at preventing legalization.
“Stand 4 Marriage D.C.” and its allies likely moved on the ballot initiative because they felt the pinch. Much over the past weeks has suggested movement towards legalizing same-sex marriage. The City Council voted overwhelmingly to recognize homosexual marriage licenses from other localities, Democratic committees in five Wards voted to recommend that the City Council consider legalizing gay marriage, and several pieces of legislation to that effect are being written. Amongst elected officials, same-sex marriage has the support.
So, does the Prop 8 give DC same-sex opponents the advantage? At this point, it doesn’t appear so. The existing and growing support from elected officials and the weakness of the ballot initiative makes legalization look more and more likely. However, this advantage is tenuous. If the ballot initiative turns out to be viable, then the gay-marriage opponents take the high ground. This could happen for two reasons: the Board of Elections does not see the referendum as violating the Human Rights Act, or a decision from the Federal Courts excludes gay marriage from equal protection. If the initiative gets put on the ballot, national support will come flooding in, along with individuals experienced in running successful referendum campaigns on the same issue. As of now, same-sex proponents are zero for three in combating similar initiatives.
The upcoming months will prove to be defining for same-sex marriage debate in DC. While nothing will likely happen until the end of the year, general strategies and objectives will be defined within the next weeks and battle lines will be drawn. Could the contention lead to national media attention? Probably not. The stakes in a city marriage debate simply are not high enough. Still, it could be a hot summer for DC residents as the debate continues.