How did same-sex marriage gain historic wins at the ballot box yesterday? Three ideas.

Assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio

Last night was a huge victory for same-sex marriage at the ballot box.

This November, voters in four states—Minnesota, Maryland, Maine, and Washington—were faced with ballot measures about same-sex marriage. For the first time, these ballot measures (all except Minnesota) had the potential to legalize same-sex marriage in that state. Already, voters in Maine and Maryland have passed same-sex marriage at the ballot box, a historic first, and voters in Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage. It is highly likely that Washington voters have also legalized same-sex marriage at the ballot.

My book, Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, analyzes the long and painful history of anti-gay ballot measures and how the LGBT movement has grown to fight them. Since the first anti-gay ballot measure in 1974 in Boulder, Colorado, the LGBT movement has fought more than 155 ballot measures across the country. For the last decade, most of these ballot measures have banned same-sex marriage with broad voter support.

How did the LGBT movement go from a losing streak around same-sex marriage to an epic victory? I think the following factors are significant:

Huge Campaigns. All four states launched large campaigns that created broad coalitions, identified potential supporters, raised millions of dollars, and harnessed people power with thousands of volunteers. These campaigns might have been aided by the size of the states in question. All states either had median population size or were quite small, which increases the chances that a large campaign would reach voters. In the case of Maine, volunteers really could speak to all of their supporters, as opposed to past campaigns in larger states such as California, Texas or Florida.

Learning from Past Campaigns. The LGBT movement learned a lot by losses with California Proposition 8 in 2008 and Maine Question 1 in 2009. One of the biggest lessons learned was about political messaging, the messages developed to create political ads and canvassing scripts. This time around, messages in all campaigns were more direct and focused on LGBT rights; there was more visibility of gay and lesbian individuals in these campaigns, and the ads talked about same-sex marriage in a more direct manner. Campaigns in the past have often avoided this directness, focusing instead on constitutional issues or fairness more generally. This directness might have increased the power of political messages to counter Religious Right messages about the dangers of same-sex marriage to children in schools or religious freedom. This learning from past campaigns has included developing new, sophisticated canvassing models through projects like Vote For Equality.

Public Opinion. The last major vote on same-sex marriage was in 2009 with Maine Question 1, and since then public opinion has shifted dramatically toward greater support for same-sex marriage. For the first time a majority of voters and a sitting president both support same-sex marriage. An increasing number of states have also legalized same-sex marriage. These factors have led many scholars and organizers to suggest that there has been a “turning of the tide” for support of same-sex marriage.

Overall, Tuesday night was a historic night for the LGBT movement and its fight to legalize same-sex marriage!


Amy L. Stone is assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box.

“Offers smart, well-researched insight into how we may be able to make changes moving forward.” —Instinct Magazine

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