About two months ago, the Washington State legislature passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. About one week ago, a referendum to repeal same-sex marriage legislation recently secured enough signatures to make the ballot in Washington State this November. Clearly, the state legislature acted against the wishes of the people they represented. Those people are now exercising their right to rectify this mistake. Or are they?
A recent poll by consulting firm Strategies 360 found that 54% of Washingtonians believe same-sex couples should be able to get married. Pew Research Polls indicate a 16% increase nationally in people who support same-sex marriage over the last 8 years. Of course, there are likely still certain people who feel that same-sex marriage somehow poses a grave threat to the moral fabric of society. But such individuals are increasingly few and far between. Clearly then, if the anti-same-sex marriage advocates hope to prevail in their quest to postpone the inevitable – if slow – march of civil rights, they will have to broaden their base.
In order to attract widespread support from the average voter, many same-sex marriage opponents demand the issue is approached “the right way.” Indeed, Newt Gingrich initially commended Washington’s legalization efforts, saying “I think at least they’re doing it the right way, which is going through voters, giving them a chance to vote.” Of course, the subtext there is that any legalization of same-sex marriage not approved by the entire population via vote is invalid.
Obviously, there are several problems with this, not the least of which is that it challenges the authority of our entire democratic republic system of government. The majority of democratically elected state senators and representatives voted in support of a bill to formally extend the right to marry to all persons regardless of sexual orientation. The governor then signed this bill, per the state constitution, into law. Normal and effective functioning of our system of government as much “the right way” as if the issue were to be left to a general election.
More distressing, however is the employment of the general initiatives as the only “right way” to approach important issues. Not only are frequent general elections to decide issues cumbersome and expensive, but they are also prone to all sorts of dangerously undemocratic afflictions. As James Madison warned in the Federalist Papers, such direct democracy allows for a tyrannical majority to withhold civil liberties from a minority.
While same-sex marriage proponents have achieved many victories in legislatures and courtrooms, every single public vote on the issue has fallen short of approval. Clearly, conservatives recognize that their luck is much better with busy voters who enter the polling booth ill-informed with emotions charged and ears ringing with whatever the loudest political action committee has proclaimed (read Tea Party) than it is with elected, educated officials. For all the criticism, our elected officials are civic experts who spend their days carefully considering thoughtful arguments presented by advocates of all perspectives. Indeed, we have elected them in the first place to make tough decisions on our behalf. Let them do their job.