Update on same-sex marriage referenda

As I wrote before, there are four state referenda on same-sex marriage. Here’s an update on those ballot initiatives.

In Washington, supporters of a referendum to legalize same-sex marriage lead opponents by 54% to 39%.

In Maryland, the vote to uphold the state’s already existing same-sex marriage law leads by 52% to 43%.

In Maine, a poll in late September found 57% in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.

In Minnesota, there is a referendum to ban same-sex marriage. A poll released on October 8 shows a 49% to 46% margin opposing the amendment. The margin was 48% to 47% in favor of the amendment a month ago, so the trend is in the right direction.

Despite these encouraging poll results, and my firm belief that equal rights for gays is an unstoppable tide that is going to sweep over the entire nation soon, I am not too sanguine for these four referenda because I fear that polls may be unreliable on this particular issue. We have reached a stage on important social change issues where hypocrisy becomes a factor in the public psyche. This is when the tide of public sentiment has turned so much on an important issue that to express opposition to it is to risk being seen as backward or even a bigot. In such a situation, people will tell pollsters what they think is the acceptable view while secretly having reservations or thinking the opposite. There have been suggestions that this factor may be currently at play when it comes to same-sex marriage.

When it comes to voting for minority candidates, this phenomenon was called the Bradley Effect (or the Wilder Effect) after the names of black politicians Tom Bradley of California and Douglas Wilder of Virginia. Both had large leads in the polls prior to the election for the respective governorships but Bradley lost in 1982 while Wilder just barely squeaked through to a win in 1989. There were some doubts as to whether race was the only factor at play or whether faulty polling or other issues may have had a significant influence. But even if it were significant then, the Bradley effect seems to have dissipated with time, as one might expect when people start to get comfortable with the new social order. Although there were fears in 2008 that Obama might lose to McCain because of the Bradley effect despite leading in the polls, the final result was remarkably close to the predictions.

But there is another possible factor that may be at work. I suspect that while many readers of this blog are mystified as to why anyone would vote against same-sex marriage, since there is no rational basis for this opposition, there is no question that it is quite a radical change in thinking for many people and some may hesitate at the last minute from voting for something that takes us into what is uncharted, and thus to them dangerous, territory. Hence while they may be generally approving, in a vague way, of equal rights for the gay community, they may shrink at the last minute, perhaps even in the voting booth, from taking this decisive step, deciding instead to kick this can down the road until they are more comfortable with it. When people are in doubt, they tend to find comfort in the status quo.

This may explain why the same-sex marriage issue lost by such a large margin in North Carolina in May, despite pre-election polls showing that it was a very close call.

So while I think that the tide has definitely turned and that it is only a matter of time before full legal recognition is obtained for same-sex marriage (after all, even Ted Haggard now supports it), I am frankly nervous about these four votes, unless they show large leads of the order of 10% or more right up to election day.

On the other hand, even a single victory out of the four will have huge symbolic value since that would be the first time the public has voted directly in favor of same-sex marriage. All previous measures have been mandated by the courts or passed by state legislatures.

Until that day, here is an interesting short speech by a preacher Phil Snider that was delivered during hearings when the city of Springfield, Missouri was debating an ordinance preventing discrimination against members of the LGBT community. You need to watch it through to the end.

The video of Snider’s speech has been viewed extensively and he has a blog post about the responses he has received.