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Why Voting on Rights is a Lousy Idea


By Matt Baume

Maine, Washington, and Maryland are all closer than ever to marriage equality, but the Governor of New Jersey thinks that civil rights should be put to a popular vote — whether it’s marriage today, or school desegregation in the 1950s.

There’s a lot to talk about this week, so let’s dive right in.

First, it’s official: Maine’s moving ahead with a citizen-led effort to win back marriage equality. The state has a statutory ban on marriage, but equality organizers have collected more than enough signatures to get a repeal of the anti-gay ban before voters in November of 2012. But keep an eye on the Maine legislature: they have the option to pass a repeal themselves, which would restore marriage equality without the need for a popular vote. Or they could put their own version of the bill on the ballot, splitting votes between two competing measures. Either way, it’s shaping up to be a very busy 2012.

New Jersey’s Senate Judiciary Committee passed a marriage bill this week, but Governor Chris Christie has promised to veto the measure. Christie said that civil rights should be put up for a popular vote. And that includes, he said, African Americans in the 1960s, who would have “been happy for a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South.”

Civil rights leaders have denounced that position. Here’s Newark Mayor Corey Booker.

“Dear God. We should not be putting civil rights issues to a popular vote. To be subject to the sentiments, to the passions of the day. … This is a fundamental bedrock of what our nation stands for.”

Of course, when the United States Supreme Court ended the ban on interracial marriage in 1967, 74% of Americans would have opposed that decision. And it’s been nearly a century since New Jersey put civil rights on the ballot, the last time being a 1915 referendum on allowing women to vote. Voters rejected that measure.

Maryland governor Martin O’Malley introduced a marriage bill this week, with strengthened religious exemptions that closely mirror those of the successful bill in New York. That won an endorsement from the state Bar Association. But a bill in New Hampshire would go much further, creating a nondiscrimination loophole that would allow any person or business to discriminate on any basis. The so-called “conscience” bill would eliminate protection guarantees for any group, gay and straight, male and female.

That’s separate from the other anti-gay New Hampshire bill that would eliminate marriage equality. This week AFER Board Member and former chairman of the Republican National Committee Ken Mehlman, announced that he’d travel to New Hampshire to persuade Republicans that marriage equality is a fundamental freedom and a non-partisan value that all lawmakers should protect.

A hearing on Washington state’s marriage equality bill drew crowds this week, and a Senate Committee voted to pass the measure to the full body. But the final vote may not come right away. As soon as the measure passes, anti-marriage activists can start gathering signatures for a referendum. Lawmakers may therefore wait until the end of the legislative session to pass the law, thereby reducing the amount of time that our opponents will have to try to overturn the measure.

Meanwhile dozens of Washington businesses have endorsed marriage equality, from giants like Starbucks, Nike, and Microsoft to local employers. And a study by the Williams Institute shows that marriage equality would bring $88 million to the state over the next three years.

In Minnesota, an appeals court gave a green light to a lawsuit that challenges that state’s marriage ban. In Dallas, residents are pushing that mayor to join over a hundred others in signing a marriage equality pledge, but he’s proven reluctant so far. New Mexico State Rep David Chavez has introduced a constitutional amendment that would ban marriage in state. A new survey in Texas shows 59% support relationship recognition. In Indiana, they’re considering a bill that would enable lawmakers to study alternatives to marriage. And the Democratic Governor of North Carolina, Bev Purdue,  will not seek a second term. That means there’s likely to be a Democratic Primary in May. And that could boost turnout among voters who oppose the anti-gay constitutional amendment on the ballot. And a North Carolina lesbian couple has been found guilty of trespass for occupying a county office in protest over discriminatory marriage laws. Their punishment: a ten dollar fine, which they’ve promised to appeal.

These municipal sit-ins have been a tactic for a long time, usually centered around Valentine’s Day. Recently I chatted with Cecile Veillard and Michael James Anderson, two San Diego activists who were arrested when they accompanied a gay couple to request a marriage license. Their trial is coming up in March. Visit to watch our full interview about what happened and why they’re not giving up.

And a study out this week shows what we already knew: young people are overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equality. The study from the Higher Education Research Institute shows marriage support at 71%, up from 65% just two years ago.

Those are the headlines, visit us at for more on all these stories and more, and to sign up for breaking news alerts. Visit for more information on the federal fight to overturn Prop 8 and win full federal marriage equality. I’m Matt Baume at the American Foundation for Equal Rights. We’ll see you next week.


  • 1. Sagesse  |  January 31, 2012 at 8:05 am


  • 2. Ann S.  |  January 31, 2012 at 9:10 am


  • 3. Derek Williams  |  January 31, 2012 at 8:20 am

    While it is true that minorities civil rights are intrinsically inviolate, not subject to the whim of the majority who will always outnumber any minority, having majority support doesn't hurt either. Rights legislation that depends for its survival upon edicts by the judiciary and legislature is very difficult to enforce without the Hearts and Minds.

    We should still be going after winning over the majority to our humanity. Excellent case in point is the democratically repealed DADT. This was supported by over 70% of the public, 70% of over 100,000 military personnel surveyed, passed by Congress and at the Senate and accepted by military chiefs.

    Teapublicans can bluster all they like about overturning repeal. With majority support, DADT repeal is here to stay.

    We've had many knockbacks along the way with DADT, decriminalisation and discrimination legislation , and we're having them again right now with Marriage Equality. Paradoxically, I think these setbacks actually help us, because they provoke public debate, and Truth Wins Out in the end. History has taught us never to give up.

  • 4. Mykelbarber  |  January 31, 2012 at 8:52 am

    Screw hearts and minds. They can all eat me. I am guranteed my civil rights under the US Constitution and by damn, we will have them through the courts.

  • 5. Derek Williams  |  January 31, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Of course, but bearing in mind we're outnumbered 10>1, it does no harm to be reasonable in one's dealings with the hearts and minds, otherwise they can and will eat us. It was hearts and minds that adopted the Constitution in the first place.

  • 6. Susan  |  February 1, 2012 at 7:36 am

    I was in middle school when busing happened to mix blacks and whites to comply with the new law. Winning hearts and minds will save children from paying the price in bullying. We can be the example of great character irregardless of sexual orientation to educate people as we live our lives and give people a way to overcome their bogey man programming that today's adults all got as children in public service announcements on TV. The law just starts the conversation in a manner that grabs everyone's attention and has consequences If caught. Complying with the law requires that we have reached hearts and minds, and hopefully there will be less strike back and school yard bullying as rebuttal, less hate crimes, less law suites. Things to consider, a man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.

  • 7. Bob  |  January 31, 2012 at 9:11 am

    The New Hampshire legislature wants to do what? Allow people to discriminate on any basis? I guess they haven't heard of the Fourteenth Amendment.

  • 8. AnonyGrl  |  January 31, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Which is why that law would probably fall in the courts anyway, Bob. So New Hampshire would be rather idiotic to pass it. But as we know, lawmakers are not always as wise as we would like them to be.

  • 9. Volunteer India  |  May 3, 2012 at 12:19 am

    More and more American are becoming conscious about their rights and equality. Sooner or later, things will change. I support equality.

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