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Why Anti-Gay Groups Are So Eager To “Let The Voters Decide” In Minnesota

May 19, 2011 4:10 pm ET by Carlos Maza

Anti-gay groups are hard at work in Minnesota, where the state legislature is expected to vote this week on a bill that would put a constitutional amendment defining marriage as betweeen one man and one woman before voters in 2012. Groups like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) have been championing the bill by relying on one of their favorite talking points: It should be up to the voters to decide the definition of marriage:

[NOM blog, accessed 5/19/11]

NOM has used this “let voters decide” approach in Rhode Island, Maryland, California, Iowa, and other states, as well as in Washington, D.C. The group has also used this mantra to oppose pro-equality candidates in Minnesota’s 2010 gubernatorial race.

Much has already been said about the moral and legal problems with putting the rights of a disempowered minority group up for a public vote.

By framing the debate around the importance of direct democracy, however, NOM has been able to work toward restricting LGBT rights without having to appear explicitly anti-gay.

In reality, these referendums very rarely end up actually reflecting the will of the voters.

Instead, they tend to be co-opted by well-financed special interest groups like NOM that flood voters with misleading and outright false information in order to inflate public opinion against minority groups (in this case, the LGBT community). As law professor Paula Abrams wrote in 2008:

One can readily conclude that lawmaking by initiative, the manifestation of unchecked majority will, carries a high risk of producing bad laws. The “bad law” risk posed by the initiative is not simply that of generic poor policy. The absence of the deliberative process can leave the voters with profoundly inaccurate information. False information may be an unintended byproduct of the public campaign, or it may be deliberately disseminated for political advantage. Deliberate dissemination of false information can be a particularly potent and harmful strategy to agitate the majority against minority groups. Immune from legislative or executive review, initiative campaigns may rely on appeals to voter prejudice. [Oregon Law Review, Vol. 87, 1025, emphasis added, 2008]

It’s not surprising that anti-gay groups would rely on fear mongering and propaganda to scare people into opposing LGBT equality. Frankly, it’s just easier to get people to vote based on fear and intolerance than it is to get them to accept minority groups as being equal and deserving of fair treatment. As James Wenzel, et al., explained in 1998:

The problem for tolerance, and hence for democratic government, is that while the urge to repress potential threats has a strong, potentially genetically transmitted (see Willhoite 1977), affective component, a tolerant response requires the commitment of substantial cognitive resources. This ingrained propensity to respond in an intolerant fashion must be overcome by resort to reasoned argument. Citizens must be convinced that reason requires that they ignore their initial impulses toward what they perceive as self-preservation and extend rights to those whom they view as threatening and potentially destructive. Ballot choices involving unpopular minority groups create a context where citizens must make choices about these groups on the basis of their affect toward the groups, in combination with the information received during the petition drive and campaign. [Citizens As Legislators, Ohio State University Press, emphasis added, 1998]

This approach isn’t just theoretical. Groups like NOM and MassResistance have already demonstrated their willingness to successfully distribute widely discredited anti-gay propaganda in order to sway public opinion. In fact, deliberately disseminating misinformation to influence voters is becoming a major component of NOM’s political strategy.

This strategy was on display most obviously during California’s 2008 battle over Proposition 8. Just a few weeks before the ballot initiative to prohibit same-sex marriage came up for a vote, several polls found that a majority of likely California voters opposed the initiative.

NOM became heavily invested in the fight to pass Prop 8, spending nearly $1 million in out-of-state money and creating the iconic “Gathering Storm” television ad.

By the time the Prop 8 votes were counted, 52 percent of voters had approved of the measure, ending marriage equality in the Golden State.

A similar story played out in Maine near the end of 2009.

Several polls conducted shortly before the state’s referendum vote found that a majority of voters supported keeping the state’s marriage equality law on the books. Opposition to the law hovered around 40 percent in both polls.

NOM quickly went to work, investing thousands of dollars in anti-equality efforts and helping launch yet another misinformation campaign about gay indoctrination in public schools.   

When the vote totals came in, 53 percent of voters ended up voting to repeal the law, more than a 10-point increase in opposition.

Maine and California aren’t isolated incidents, either. In a 1997 study, political scientist Barbara Gamble conducted a review of 74 state and local initiatives to restrict the civil rights of minority groups between 1959 and 1993. Voters approved 78 percent of those initiatives, despite endorsing only a third of all initiatives and popular referenda in that period. Results were even grimmer for LGBT-specific initiatives:

Gay men and lesbians have seen their civil rights put to a popular vote more often than any other group. Almost 60% of the civil rights initiatives have involved gay rights issues. The measures have included efforts to repeal gay rights ordinances, to remove sexual orientation as a protected category in housing and employment laws, to enact and repeal domestic partnership laws, to prohibit lesbians and gay men from teaching in public schools, to declare homosexuality "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and peverse," and to prohibit jurisdictions from passing new gay rightslaws. Of the 43 gay rights initiatives that have reached the ballot, 88% have sought to restrict the rights of gay men and lesbians by repealing existing gay rights laws or forbidding legislatures to pass new ones. Voters approved 79% of these restrictive measures. [American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 41, No. 1, January 1997]

Gambler’s findings were confirmed by a 2011 study by Daniel C. Lewis which found that states that embraced direct democracy were more likely to have adopted same-sex marriage bans.

Proponents of voter initiatives might respond by arguing that referendums allow the public to openly and fully discuss controversial issues, educating citizens about same-sex marriage, and accurately reflecting the popular will.

While these arguments might normally be persuasive, they make less sense in the context of propaganda-driven anti-gay referendums. As William Adams wrote in 1994:

[A] closer evaluation of these benefits reveals that the normal advantages of ballot propositions are considerably weaker with the antigay measures. The issue-avoidance consideration is not present with these measures because over one hundred jurisdictions have approved sexual orientation discrimination and a number of other jurisdictions have considered it. n86 These plebiscites are trying to remove the issue from the agenda, rather than add to it. The misinformation supplied by the proponents of these measures undercuts much of the benefit to be gained from public discussion of gay, lesbian, and bisexual equality rights. Whether this issue truly expresses the public will is open to debate. Certainly, the issue of whether the public interest is being served by these measures is hotly contested by many civil rights activists. [Ohio State Law Journal, Vol. 55, 583, emphasis added, Summer 1994]

The anti-gay industry should come clean about its motives for demanding public votes on the right of gays and lesbians. For groups like NOM, voter initiatives aren’t about democracy; They’re about spending millions of dollars lying to the public and scaring on-the-fence voters into opposing LGBT equality.


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