California's Gay Marriage Ban: The Counties to Watch

As we get ready for California to vote on a closely watch ballot measure to prohibit gay marriage, it may be helpful to look back ...
by | October 31, 2008

As we get ready for California to vote on a closely watch ballot measure to prohibit gay marriage, it may be helpful to look back to the last time California voted on gay marriage, eight years ago. Then again, it may not.

Voters in California and nationally support gay marriage at higher rates than they did in 2000. Plus, for the particular purpose that I'm interested in -- determining which counties will be bellwethers for the state results -- it's also important to note that many places have undergone demographic shifts in the past eight years. If you map the "yes" and "no" votes after Nov. 4, the result could very well look quite a bit different than the map from 2000.

That said, I have nothing else to go on. It's almost impossible to use a previous election between Democratic and Republican candidates to forecast what a ballot measure's result will look like (as will be obvious by the end of this post), so the 2000 vote is it.

The 2000 measure, Prop. 22, was for a statue to prohibit gay marriage. It passed with 61.4% of the vote. The California Supreme Court ruled that statute unconstitutional earlier this year, prompting social conservatives to push Prop. 8 to ban gay marriage in the state constitution.

So, I'm interested in counties where Prop. 22 received around 61.4% of the vote, since they may mirror the statewide total again. Three small counties fit that description. They are Mono County (60.4% for Prop. 22), San Benito County (61.6%) and San Luis Obispo County (61.9%).

Three large counties also came pretty close to matching the statewide result. And, these three counties reveal just how much ballot measure politics diverges from typical electoral politics. The three: Los Angeles County (58.6%), Sacramento County (62.5%) and San Diego County (62.7%).

You don't have to know much about California politics to know that Los Angeles County, with close to 10 million residents, is a Democratic bastion. John Kerry took 63% of the vote here, far better than his statewide performance. Even as Arnold Schwarzenegger romped to reelection in 2006, he lost Los Angeles County.

Sacramento and San Diego, on the other hand, are quite a bit more Republican than the state as a whole. President Bush won San Diego County in his reelection bid. He only lost Sacramento County by a little more than 1,000 votes. Yet on the topic of gay marriage (at least in 2000) all three of these places voted similarly.

As that indicates, in 2000 Democratic areas tended to support gay marriage and Republicans ones tended to oppose it, but the connection wasn't all that strong. Sure, the voters of San Francisco overwhelmingly rejected Prop. 22 and the voters of Orange County overwhelmingly supported it, but other jurisdictions were far less predictable based on their typical partisan preferences.

There are signs that the dynamics will be the same this year. Gay rights supporters wanted Barack Obama to get more involved in the fight against Prop. 8 because lots of Democrats -- especially blacks and Hispanics -- are likely to vote for it. But, there's also a segment of Republicans who are likely to oppose the measure. For that reason, I recommend keeping an eye on San Diego, Sacramento and Los Angeles counties.

Previously in the counties to watch series: NC-GOV, WA-GOV, SD-Abortion Ban.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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