Thursday, November 06, 2008

Ballot Measures Head to the Center

I find that reporting on ballot measures is often more heated and polarizing than even the horse-race stories about candidates. Just about everyone has an opinion on the presidential candidates, and those opinions cover the full spectrum of nuance. Ballot measures, on the other hand, draw only partisans to hit the streets, give interviews, and shape the way stories are reported. The stories, therefore, tend to show all-or-nothing victories. Yet the usual reality is that the centrist position prevails, if the people are given an option to choose.

The lead stories on ballot measures were the bans on gay marriage passed in Arizona, Florida, and California. California was the big news, because the state Supreme Court had overturned an earlier ballot measure that had also banned gay marriage. Yet this is in line with the middle position that we find all over the country: most people oppose same-sex marriage, but support civil unions. Florida and California had millions of voters who voted for Obama and against gay marriage. Domestic partner registration, a kind of civil union, is still legal in California. Even there, the issue is more symbolic than substantive. There are just under 100,000 same-sex couples in California, out of a population of 36.5 million, yet only about 4,000 actually got married when it was legal.

Arkansas also banned adoption by unmarried couples. This has been reported as a ban on gay adoption, and of course there are no legally married same-sex couples in Arkansas. The overwhelming majority of couples affected by the ban, though, are opposite-sex cohabitors, who could marry. The voters of Arkansas are following popular and social science wisdom that children do best with two married parents.

The abortion measures that passed were modest, popular, centrist changes, while the extreme measures failed. Thus California passed a parental notification requirement, with work-arounds if that would be too problematic for the girl. On the other hand, the total bans on abortion in Colorado and South Dakota failed. The Michigan measure to allow stem cell research was amazingly detailed and careful for a constitutional measure.

There are others that show the same pattern, in which centrist measures pass, while extreme changes fail. Washington passed a physician-assisted suicide law, with careful limits that apply only to certified no-hopers. Michigan allowed medical use of marijuana, not blanket decriminalization. By contrast, "Taxachusetts" voters had a chance to abolish the state income tax, and turned it down two to one.

Successful ballot measures are usually centrist compromises between extreme ideas. Their story should be told that way.

1 comment:

halifax said...

Should we say that the Californians took back their state?