Same-sex marriage was not the deciding issue

News Analysis

Even before the polls closed on Nov. 2, the political slings and arrows were being aimed at the movement for marriage equality.

Citing the prevalence of “moral values” as the top concern for voters, some election analysts pinned John Kerry’s loss of the presidential race on an alleged backlash against the nationwide movement for same-sex marriage rights.

Voters in 11 states passed ballot initiatives amending their states’ constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. In eight, the amendments also ban any civil union or domestic partnership, regardless of sexual orientation. The ballot measures, the handiwork of the right wing, were calculated to spur voter turnout among conservatives.

However, more than just the gay marriage issue spurred the “moral values” vote. Under the direction of Bush campaign advisor Karl Rove, hot-button issues around women’s rights, racial justice, sex education, the Faith Based Initiative and stem-cell research were also used to galvanize the conservative evangelical vote.

“The right wing was indeed energized,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in a statement, noting that the Bush administration had “catered to [the right wing’s] every request.”

At the same time, he said, “It’s sickening and fascinating that when one in five voters said that ‘moral values’ was the most important issue for them, pundits immediately equated that with gay marriage.”

Politicians also seized on the passage of the amendments to make the false accusation that the issue of same-sex marriage swung the presidential vote for Bush, something disproved by the numbers. Kerry won the states of Oregon and Michigan, where amendments against gay marriage passed, with percentages at or above those received by Al Gore in 2000.

In Ohio, nearly 200,000 people vote for president bypassed State Issue 1, the same-sex marriage measure. Clearly, the presidential race itself was paramount.

While the media focus has been on the passage of the amendments, a large majority of voters support legal protections for same-sex couples. Exit polls showed that 20 percent of voters said moral values were the most important issue also showed that 60 percent supported either legal marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples.

Although the end result of the vote was a disappointing setback, gay and lesbian groups are looking at the election as a point of departure. Lambda Legal and the Georgia ACLU said they will file a lawsuit to overturn that state’s new amendment, which bans both same-sex marriage and legal status for unmarried couples. Similar suits may be filed in other states. Shortly before the election, an amendment to the Louisiana Constitution was overturned on this basis.

There were some positive developments. A majority of Cincinnati voters voted to repeal a city charter article that denied gays and lesbians protection under the city’s human rights laws. In 40 races across the country, candidates who openly supported gay rights were elected. All of the Massachusetts legislators who supported that state’s historic legalization of same-sex marriage were re-elected. In four of the 11 states that passed discriminatory amendments and in two of the six states that already had such amendments, voters elected openly gay or lesbian candidates.

The author can be reached at jbarnett@pww.org.