Thursday, November 1, 2012

Elections 2012: the Minnesota Referendum.

As the day of the presidential elections is nearing, the media in France have had all sorts of programs and special reports on american politics. What is often forgotten, however, is that besides the fight for the presidency, these are also major congressional  and local elections. In fact, there are myriads of other local issues that Americans will have to vote for or against. A lot of these issues are important because they both reflect and foretell what is at work in American society as a whole. 

This is the case of Minnesota where two important referendums are taking place this year. To understand what is at stake, we're going to give voice to a native of the North Star State who has been a contributor in the past and is well aware of what is at stake politically both nationally and locally :

Why I will vote NO in November

There are two important referendums on the ballot in Minnesota this November. The first is asking us whether we would like to see a law requiring Voter ID to prevent voter fraud. The second is asking us to vote on an amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as the relationship between a man and a woman alone. I will be voting no on both these amendments.

The first referendum is actually quite simple for me. The voter fraud issue that the new law is supposed to address simply doesn’t exist. The only kind of voter fraud that Voter ID would address is impersonation fraud (someone trying to vote under a false name) and this type of fraud is virtually non-existent. Very few individuals are going to risk a felony for the sake of one vote. The burden of proof for this fraud is on the group proposing the change. I am unconvinced. On a general level, I am against writing new laws to address problems that don’t exist.

The second referendum deals with the definition of marriage, limiting its status to the union of a heterosexual couple. I have spoken with some very intelligent people who have a variety of opinions on this, from legal scholars to business owners, teachers, and stay-at-home parents. The bulk of arguments in favor of the amendment stem from three lines of reasoning: 1) let voters decide how to define marriage rather than activist judges, 2) marriage has always been a unique institution defined as a union between a man and a woman for the propagation of humanity and upbringing of children, and 3) we have to protect family values since the family unit is the core of a healthy society. Arguments against the amendment generally rest on appeals to civil rights.

On principle, I am reluctant to change the state constitution as a preventative measure. The state currently recognizes only heterosexual marriage in its statutes. The amendment will not change that. It is designed to prevent some future panel of judges from changing that. But again the law as it stands already recognizes marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. An amendment would effectively freeze this definition for a much longer period. I think it imprudent to prevent my children from making their own decision on this issue. I recognize that opinion on this issue has evolved over time. I believe that they should have the opportunity, like we have, to make up their own minds on this issue. The first ten amendments to the federal constitution, the Bill of Rights, protect individual and group rights. This amendment seems to me starkly at odds with the spirit of those amendments.

Furthermore, my position stems from my experience as a teacher and a traveler. As a traveler I have lived in other countries that allow gays to marry and I see little difference between their values and ours. The gays I know in the US, France, Belgium and Canada bear little resemblance to the caricatures I see in the press or in breathless stories of gay activism. They are, to a person, normal people living out their daily existence at work and at home. My gay colleagues at school, from my time as a student and as a professor, have been lovely people with a great capacity for kindness and friendship. I have never felt offended or threatened by their sexual orientation. On the contrary, I have found them to be professional, discreet, and exceedingly normal.

I grew up in a conservative community. My brother was one of four black children in a Midwestern town of 5,000. I have witnessed what happens to the outlier in a small community. Subcultures are a way for mainstream culture to categorize deviant behaviors (punk, gay, black, stoner, etc.). I am a professor whose work deals with personal and collective identity. I ask my students to recount an important experience in their life. Invariably a few students write about the moment they realized they were gay or, just as often, the day they came out. Each story is fraught with angst and full of inspiration as the individuals come to accept/embrace this part of their identity and, more often than not, discover a true friend who listens and loves them just as they are. Our society has gone to great lengths to demonize gays. I still remember in high school hearing about gay bashing from Christians. I regret not standing up for the victims in the face of such obvious stupidity.

And finally, I have no patience for the politics of stereotypes. Generalizations are the bane of our society. People that have never met a gay person generalize from the five percent of gays they see in the press, movies and TV shows. From this limited encounter we get: “Gays are flamboyant activists with an agenda that will ruin our country.” But one could also generalize about conservative Christians in our country and frequently we do. Some people look at the Westboro Church picketing the funerals of soldiers and draw the conclusion that all conservative Christians are ignorant, judgmental and offensive. Having made friends in both communities, I have found the reality to be quite the opposite. Most Christians and gays that I know are kind, hard-working people with no agenda beyond their basic survival in this world, an existence so ordinary as to be almost banal. They find meaning in their existence through their work, families, friends, spirituality and hobbies. The hate-filled Christian and the activist gay are far from the norm in my experience, despite what we hear from the press. These two groups are simply full of people trying to find their way in this world, a experience I can appreciate. As for gays ruining the fabric of our society, I think we Christians have managed to do that on our own just fine.

So I will be voting no on the marriage amendment because a) it changes nothing, b) I think it leaves a poor legacy for our children, and c) it is based on a series of generalized stereotypes that are foreign to my own experience. I respect the right of others to disagree. I rarely voice my politic opinion so publicly, but I very much disagree not only with these two amendments but the politics behind them. And in the case of the marriage amendment, I felt it my responsibility to do what I failed to do so many years ago, to speak up.
NOTE from editor: Just a few words on the same-sex marriage referendum. . The idea that "voters decide how to define marriage rather than activist judges" is a very popular argument that speaks to most people because it sounds very democratic.
This may be misleading though :  if you consider same-sex marriage is a 'civil right' issue, then it's like putting a fundamental right to vote with the risk of the majority tyrannizing the minority (Imaging asking the South whether they should allow blacks to vote in the 60s). As Barbara Gamble says in her article, Putting Civil Rights to a Popular Vote, in the American Journal of Political Science o
"Without the filtering mechanisms of the representative system, direct democracy promotes majority tyranny as the scope of civil rights conflicts expands and citizens vote on civil rights laws."
Barbara Gamble, Putting Civil Rights to a Popular Vote, in the American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 41, No. 1, Jan., 1997  (here)
Now I know this may seem a bit far fetched to a lot of heterosexuals that gay marriage should be a civil right issue in the first place, but it depends how you look at homosexuality. And this is where words and definitions are crucial on our understanding of the issue :
Terms like"lifestyle", or "sexual preference" which are often used imply a choice and frame the issue in a way that is different from the reality of most homosexuals - most gays do not feel they have a choice (and given the crap they're given by society, one can assume that if they had a choice, they would make a different one). Whether it is genetics or psychological (or both) does not really matter if they feel they can't change their sexual orientation anyway. Therefore, it is like skin color. It is part of who they are.
Now the question of whether marriage is a right has long been established in the American legal system - it was made very clear during the civil rights movement of the 60s with regard to interracial marriage. (which really re-enforces my point)
See the 14th Amendment to the Constitution
"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
The U.S. Supreme Court first applied this to marriage in Loving v. Virginia (1967), where it struck down a Virginia law banning interracial marriage.
This seems to me a very logical argument to make against asking voters about same-sex marriage, but it is not something I often read. It seems like the populist argument that the majority is always right has prevailed, but the framers made it very clear in the Constitution that certain rights are inalienable, even by the majority. It all comes down of course to how you see homosexuality: is it a choice or not? The best way to find the answer is to ask the homosexuals you may know.

UPDATE from editor: It turns out that both initiatives in Minnesota were defeated :
Minnesota voters turned back two constitutional amendments Tuesday, defeating proposals to ban gay marriage and require a photo ID for voting that had once been seen as likely winners. (here

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