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Statistics and same-sex marriage ballot initiatives

Marriage equality

By Adam Bink

As an interesting follow-up on today’s piece about Maine advocates going back to the ballot on marriage equality, NYTimes resident statistics geek Nate Silver has an incredibly wonky and data geek-y new model taking into account all kinds of voting statistics and demographics. The full piece is here, which I recommend perusing, but the parts I want to pull out (predictions) that can be understood in English are below:

Minnesota. The Minnesota measure, which would ban same-sex marriage but not domestic partnerships, should be considered something of a tossup. Under the Accelerated Model, it would fail with about 49 percent of the vote, while under the Linear Model it would pass with 54 percent — both forecasts well within the models’ respective margins of error.

One additional factor, however, is that Minnesota rules require a majority of all voters to cast a ballot in favor of a constitutional amendment in order for it to pass. So someone who turns out to vote next November and punches her ballot only for the presidential election is essentially a “no” vote. Historically, about 5 percent of Minnesota voters undervote constitutional amendment proposals despite casting ballots for other races, so what this means is that the ban on same-sex marriage will de facto need something like 52 percent of the vote in order to pass. For this reason, I’d conclude that the Minnesota measure is a slight underdog.

In addition, the most recent poll in the state finds that 55 percent of voters oppose the ban on same-sex marriage while 39 percent support it. Polls on this issue have historically underestimated the support for bans on same-sex marriage — but not by such a wide margin to account for this discrepancy. Instead, the rule of thumb is that you should assume that all undecided voters will vote for the marriage ban. But since an outright majority of Minnesotans oppose the initiative in the poll — even after accounting for the undecided — it provides some meaningful guidance.

The ban is certainly not a heavy favorite to be defeated: see this blog post for someone who thinks it will pass, and consider that there are two plausible Republican presidential nominees from Minnesota, which could affect the dynamics of the vote. But I’d set something like 5-to-3 odds against its passage.

North Carolina. The other state that is most likely to consider an initiativeagainst same-sex marriage in 2012 is North Carolina — the only remaining Southern state that does not ban same-sex marriage in its Constitution. A ban on same-sex marriage alone would be a heavy favorite to pass in North Carolina: although the state is becoming bluer, it is still fairly socially conservative, and many of the voters who allowed Barack Obama to win the state in 2008 were African-Americans, who have historically been opposed to same-sex marriage.

The proposed text of the amendment would seem to apply to domestic partnerships in addition to marriage, however, which makes its prospects more tenuous. We’d project such a measure to receive about 60 percent of the vote under the Linear Model, but 54 percent under the Accelerated Model, making it a favorite but not a prohibitive one.

New York. New York’s new law is unlikely to be overturned. If a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage were on the ballot next year, we’d project it to receive 40 percent of the vote under the Accelerated Model or 44 percent under the Linear Model, making its passage doubtful but not impossible.

But New York law is quite unfriendly to constitutional amendments, and even groups that would like see the law overturned are unlikely to get a proposition on the ballot before November 2015. Unless the trend toward greater acceptance of same-sex marriage abruptly reverses itself, such a measure would probably be defeated, perhaps by a wide margin.

Iowa. Among the six states where same-sex marriage is allowed today, Iowa is the only one in which the model projects a majority of voters would want to overturn it — either 52 or 58 percent of voters, depending on which model is used.

But Iowa is another state in which the constitutional amendment process is cumbersome. Ballot initiatives must be approved by both chambers of the Legislature for two consecutive sessions, and with Democrats having held onto control of the State Senate, it is likely to be at least 2013 before the initiative passes through the Legislature the first time, let alone the second.

If and when an amendment eventually makes the ballot, Iowans will have lived with same-sex marriage for several years at a minimum, during which time support for marriage equality is likely to increase both within the state and nationally. Therefore, the law is relatively likely to stick, the more promising route for overturning it perhaps being a court challenge.

New Hampshire. New Hampshire is another state in which there are discussions about overturning the new marriage law. Public opinion, however, is more likely than not to resist to such measures. Although the state can be fiscally conservative, it is also highly secular, and the models would project around 60 percent of the voters there to reject a ban on same-sex marriage if one were voted upon next year.

Maine. With the important caveat that the model had incorrectly deemed Question 1 to be an underdog in 2009, the results might be different if a similar measure were voted upon again. Between the growth in support for same-sex marriage over the past three years and the fact that the ballot initiative in 2009 may have benefited from standing alone on the ballot rather than being coupled with other races, the model thinks Mainers are likely, although not certain, to affirm same-sex marriage if given another chance.

California and Oregon. These are the states in which there has been the most discussion about overturning an existing ban on same-sex marriage. The model suggests that these are the right targets: of those states where there is a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, they are by some margin the most friendly toward gay rights.

However, there is not yet a precedent for overturning a constitutional amendment that the voters in a state had previously approved, and the model might or might not be reliable in such cases.

Nevertheless, even the relatively cautious Linear Model predicts that 54 percent of Californians would vote against a measure like Proposition 8 if one were on the ballot next year, while 55 percent of Oregonians would vote against a ban on same-sex marriage like the one the state’s voters approved in 2004. Neither prediction seems too far out of line: Oregon’s marriage ban was rejected by 43 percent of voters seven years ago, and California’s by 48 percent two years ago, and public opinion has shifted meaningfully in favor of same-sex marriage since then.

In short, the future for same-sex marriage looks to be reasonably bright. Most of the states that were fertile ground for passing a constitutional ban on it did so long ago. Minnesota and North Carolina are potential exceptions, but the six states that have gender-neutral marriage laws on the books now are unlikely to see them reversed, while some of those that don’t are in a position for gay rights advocates to go on offense.

On California, where Prop 8 is on the books, it’s interesting because the polling EQCA has been using in town halls around the state show nothing close to 54% of Californians voting our way (and it would probably need to show more, given evidence that the numbers in support of equality end up being much closer at the ballot box than in pre-election polling). Nate’s model seems to assume demographics changing over time much more dramatically.

All of this may be academic, but what’s not academic is that the stories we tell, making ourselves visible, getting media around couples like Ed and Derence all makes a difference here.


  • 1. Alan_Eckert  |  June 30, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Honestly, I thought the original article loses the reader very quickly, and there are many assumptions that don't relate to the real world.

  • 2. Tim in Sonoma  |  June 30, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    I tried to read the entire artical but I was lost in information overload!

  • 3. Waxr  |  June 30, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    The above article states:

    "However, there is not yet a precedent for overturning a constitutional amendment that the voters in a state had previously approved, and the model might or might not be reliable in such cases."

    On the Federal level, the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st. Amendment.

  • 4. Ann S.  |  June 30, 2011 at 2:48 pm


  • 5. frisky1  |  June 30, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    "The Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board ruled today that corporate donations to groups advocating for or against a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage must be disclosed. The Minnesota Family Council (MFC) and the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) argued that supporters of marriage equality would commit violence against their donors if they were made public. On Thursday, the board disagreed."

  • 6. Ann S.  |  June 30, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    GOOD. They shouldn't be exempt from disclosure laws.

  • 7. jpmassar  |  June 30, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    They will just challenge the decision in court, and like Maine and Washington, they will never (for all practical purposes) have to disclose, because disclosure will be stayed and the court case will take years, if not a decade to resolve

  • 8. FlexSF  |  July 1, 2011 at 6:32 am

    I hope the equality attorneys are prepared to nail these pious bastards the instant they begin to play by their own rules. These scumbags must not be allowed to hide their bigot financial donors. They deserve wicked scrutiny for fucking with the equal rights of the gays.

  • 9. Sagesse  |  June 30, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Also from the Minnesota Independent, an illustration of how valuable disclosure can be.

    Marcus Bachmann donated to campaign for constitutional ban on gay marriage

  • 10. the lone ranger  |  June 30, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Is that really surprising? I'd be way more shocked if he contributed to a marriage equality group. Although, the chatter among readers posting comments on other sites (the suggests that he at least *appears* he could have a fashionably-dressed skeleton in his closet.

  • 11. Steve  |  July 1, 2011 at 7:51 am

    Watch this:

    There is no way he is straight.

    That he donated money is the least of his offenses. He is running a counseling company that provides Christian ex-gay therapy

  • 12. MarcosLB  |  July 1, 2011 at 8:18 am

    In addition he received our tax dollars for his "therapy business" : "A counseling clinic run by her husband has received nearly $30,000 from the state of Minnesota in the last five years, money that in part came from the federal government."

    Make no mistake about it this these people are facsists hellbent on literal biblical rule.

  • 13. Waxr  |  June 30, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    Recall when the defense in Perry vs. Schwarzenegger claimed that their witnesses were afraid that violence may be committed against them if their testimony was broadcast. Now NOM is claiming that supporters of mariage equality would commit violence against NOM donors. For years gays were described as "wimps". Now gay rights opponents are afraid of people they once called wimps. As far as threatening violence goes, which side keeps citing Leviticus 20:13?

  • 14. Str8Grandmother  |  July 3, 2011 at 7:10 am

    Thanks for alerting us. I am doubtful that we are going to see NOM's donors because the rule said, "Corporate" donors must be disclosed. My suspicions are that that NOM is funded by 4 or 5 Catholic individual donors, and or Foundations. Whatever happened to that Court Case in Main where the court ruled that NOM had to disclose it's donors?

  • 15. Mark Mead-Brewer  |  June 30, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    I have a headache now 🙂

  • 16. jpmassar  |  June 30, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Adam (and others),

    Equality California has been less than forthright in their presentations around the state. I know for a fact that they have poll data that they did not present at the town hall meetings (at least the one I went to). Here is part of it:

    As you may know, in 2008 voters approved an initiative that prohibited same-sex couples from getting married. Would you vote yes or no to overturn that initiative and give same-sex couples the right to legally marry?

    Vote yes: 51%
    Vote no: 45%

    This is consistent with Nate's model — note that the above poll was taken recently, while Nate's model is projecting a year and a half into the future, with additional demographic and social change assumptions built into it. Nate's model might be tad optimistic, or it might not — the polling has a margin of error.

    But every single indicator EXCEPT the one poll that Equality California chose to present at the town meetings (which showed 45-45), suggests that there is a majority that will put Prop 8 to rest in 2012 if a vote is taken.

    Furthermore, and I hate to keep beating a dead horse, but we get to write the amendment. Having strong, positive language is surely worth a percent of the vote, and probably more.

  • 17. bradmattan  |  June 30, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    I agree. Nate's analysis seems to discuss the chances in several states of defeating a prop 8-like amendment and NOT overturning a previously approved prop 8-like constitutional amendment.

    "Nevertheless, even the relatively cautious Linear Model predicts that 54 percent of Californians would vote against a measure like Proposition 8 if one were on the ballot next year, while 55 percent of Oregonians would vote against a ban on same-sex marriage like the one the state’s voters approved in 2004."

    Nate's analysis only seems to consider the weird scenario that if prop 8 hadn't been on the ballot in 2008 but rather in 2012. Implicit in his analysis is that it would be an ANTI-MARRIAGE amendment written by opponents of marriage equality. He analysis does not consider whether support would be stronger if it were a pro-marriage amendment written by supporters of marriage equality, something that would only increase the numbers in our favor IMHO.

  • 18. StatsGirl  |  June 30, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Also, keep in mind that the given estimates all have a margin of error associated with them. I.e. the 54% estimate for California is a point estimate with some error associated with it. A value of 51% could easily be within the margin of error.

    I haven't read the article too thoroughly, but these confidence intervals (unfortunately) do not seem to be explicitly given. He does mention at the beginning that while his prediction for the Maine results was incorrect, the true percentages were within his model's margin of error.

  • 19. FlexSF  |  July 1, 2011 at 6:21 am

    If you could snap your fingers, and write the ballot language to repeal 8, what would it say?

  • 20. jpmassar  |  July 1, 2011 at 7:34 am

    The right of two people to marry shall be guaranteed regardless of race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, or sexual orientation.

    Then a meaningless religious exceptions clause.

    Then if legally necessary a sentence saying that the Prop 8 clause in the constitution is superceded.

  • 21. seth from maryland  |  June 30, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    man , im really liking our chances in minnesota, i could be wrong and the polls could be wrong , but i think we will win there

  • 22. Brian  |  July 1, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    The problem is that Nate's model, like the national polls that many of us have found so encouraging, doesn't take into account the effect of the insidious anti-equality campaigns. In California, we were winning by 17 points before the campaign started, because people have a live of let live kind of attitiude that says, "Why do I care who gets to marry each other? It doesn't affect me one way or the other." The main reason for the 22-point swing was the Yes on 8 campaign's tactic of lying about the effect on children (oh! the poor children! they may learn about the existence of stable same-sex relationships!) and on religious freedoms.

    Asking about marriage equality in a vacuum doesn't take into account what happens when a political campaign based on lies and scare tactics takes hold. The polls showed we would win in CA and in ME, also because those polls didn't take that into account. Call me when support hits 60%. Until then, I remain a skeptic.

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