Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Truth in labeling

A gay old time in California

Voters in California can write new state laws or amend the state constitution by means of the initiative process. Each general election ballot typically offers several measures that were placed there by the signatures of registered voters on initiative petitions. The November 2008 ballot is no exception, featuring in particular Proposition 8, an attempt by the religious right to overturn the recent decision by the California Supreme Court to allow same-sex marriages.

The state attorney general has the job of providing a legal description for each proposed initiative. This official description must appear on the petitions that are circulated for signatures. It also appears on the ballot so that voters are reminded of the content of the measure as they make their decisions. Attorney General Jerry Brown has recently created a fuss by altering Proposition 8's legal description. Supporters of Proposition 8 are terribly upset and claim that Brown's action is politically motivated, since the attorney general is believed to be planning a return to the governor's office (which he previously occupied from 1975 to 1983).

While it was being circulated, the initiative bore the description “Limit on Marriage. Constitutional Amendment.” No one said anything to either praise or decry this description. Then the state Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling, establishing the right of same-sex couples to be married in California. Shortly thereafter, the California secretary of state's office announced that Proposition 8 had qualified for the ballot. Attorney General Brown issued a new description: “Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry.”

The hue and cry erupted immediately. McClatchy News columnist Dan Walters, grand old man of the Capitol news beat, called Brown's relabeling “a pretty cynical act” and claims that now any defeat of Proposition 8 at the ballot box “will carry an asterisk of illegitimacy,” since the attorney general is our “referee” and “shouldn't misuse the rules of the game to favor one side over the other.”

Frankly, I'm shocked that any politics should be involved in an election campaign, but I'll set that aside for the moment. The question is not simply whether Jerry Brown has political motives (he's a politician; of course he does), but whether his position is rationally defensible. And it is. After all, circumstances have changed. Before Proposition 8 qualified for the ballot (before it even had a number, in fact), same-sex couples had no right to marry in California. Now they do. Passage of Proposition 8 would now eliminate an existing right, a right reflected in hundreds (thousands?) of same-sex marriages performed since the Supreme Court ruling became effective in June.

Gareth Lacy, a spokesperson for the attorney general, provided Brown's perspective: “We carried out our statutory duty to accurately summarize the measure. In this case, we take into account an extremely important Supreme Court decision that affirms the right to same-sex marriage.”

Does the new description hurt Proposition 8's chances of passage? Almost certainly. Did Jerry Brown try to make the language as inflammatory as possible? If so, he didn't try very hard. I would have suggested “Promotes discrimination and cruelly invalidates existing marriages.” (Perhaps that's why I'm not attorney general. Not enough nuance. And no law degree, either.)

Proposition 8 would eliminate the right of same-sex couples to get married. That is its intention. That is its description.

Jerry Brown hit the nail on the head. The pain rippling through the ranks of the state's homophobes is merely a side benefit.

14 comments:

Yoo said...

I wonder why they would have issue with the new legal description, given that it exactly describes what the ballot is for. Did they hope to pull a fast one on the populace? Do they know deep down that they're being bigoted?

Margaret said...

Your last picture says "VOTE NO ON PROP 8 - EQUALITY FOR ALL."

Surely you meant "YES" rather than "NO."

Zeno said...

Surely I didn't. I support the Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriages and I therefore oppose the proposition that would overturn it. No on 8. It's a "No" vote that provides equality for all.

William said...

Yes, they know deep down, and even up near the top, that they're being bigoted. They just don't like to hear it. They'll whine endlessly when someone dares tag them for what they are. So, not only are they bigots, they're also rather thin-skinned.

aleph1=c said...

The LA Times article I read seems to indicate that the challenge to the proposed wording change will fail. Let's hope. This is a good example that I can use when I teach survey methods of how the wording of a questionnaire can bias the results.

Margaret said...

Zeno: Surely I didn't. ...

Of course you didn't. I shouldn't comment until after sufficient morning tea to bring my reading comprehension up to at least the first grade level. The proposition is to restict a basic human right which was only recently granted, not to grant the right in the first place.

John Armstrong said...

I think Margaret fell victim to the first graphic, which is what I wanted to comment on. I really love how the change in status quo allows the marriage-equality side to co-opt the "protect marriage" slogan. How many homophobes will read that sign and make exactly the same mistake Margaret did, thinking that "no" is against gay marriage?

unapologetic said...

oops, that last one should have been from me..

stupid Blogger comment signing hoops...

Zeno said...

Yes, this is a perennial problem with initiatives: What does "yes" mean? What does "no" mean? Homophobes in particular think of Proposition 8, which they sponsored, as protecting marriage. Despite the rainbow background in that first graphic, the words "protect marriage" are viewed by many as a registered trademark of the intolerant right. Frankly, that's partly why I like that banner, since it turns the tables on the haters.

Unfortunately, by design, campaign posters and such tend to be terse. The best way to avoid ambiguity is to sacrifice a little punch and qualify things better:

Support Equality for All by Voting No on Hate. No on 8!

Dr. Pablito said...

Oh...
Now I get the sign.

No on H-8 = "No on hate"

Dang, I slow with respect to the kid talk nowadays.

And I live in California, and I thought I understood the whole thing. I second your comment about the ambiguity of most initiatives -- "If I am against the repeal of the special tax assessment which funds the program to suppress the dissemination of information to state-funded family planning clinics, then do I vote 'Yes' or 'No'? "

This is a bad way to make laws. The elected representatives already know this trick, and now special interests are foisting it on the general populace. Blech. My motto is "Vote 'No' on everything. If it's important enough, it will come around again or the legislature will deal with it directly."

Interrobang said...

I love that banner. I'd put it on my blog if I were anywhere close to California, but I'm really, really not. (I'm at least 3000km away.)

Sili said...

I approve of 'my' side coöpting the language of the haters, but I fear that they in turn are gonna try for something similar.

Almost noöne ever reads what they sign, and I don't think ballots are any different, so people will just put their X next to the word they've decided on beforehand.

So my prediction is that someone is gonna try to instill in some subsets of the electorate the notion that "yes" means "yes, gay people should be allowed to marry" - that is make those people thing the proposition is inclusive, not exclusive.

I don't know the California demographics (obviously), but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there is a progressive, but lazy, uninformed, illiterate &c &c number that might be manipulated into voting against their own intentions.

Zeno said...

You are certainly correct, Sili. There are always inattentive voters who realize after an election that they did not vote the way they intended. However, in hopes of prompting a no vote, the focus of the campaign against Proposition 8 is discrimination: Vote against discrimination. 8 is discriminatory. Vote against 8.

The "protect marriage" banner is potentially useful in two venues. Gay friendly urban areas can display it because awareness of the nature of 8 is at high levels and the rainbow-colored state map reminds the observer that "No on 8" is the gay friendly position. One could also try -- with greater risk -- to post it in the conservative Central Valley where "protect marriage" will almost certainly be misunderstood and send a message to less-informed homophobes that they have to vote no on 8. (I would love to hear what they say after they find out what a no vote does.)

However, for folks between the two poles there is ample opportunity for unproductive confusion. I'll probably get a less ambiguous sticker for my car.

Anonymous said...

did you see this?

http://www.worldnetdaily.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=70344