Prop. 8, Hispanics and California's Next Gay Marriage Vote

The debate last fall over whether California should ban gay marriage was heated. After Prop. 8 passed in November, the debate over why California decided to ...
by | June 16, 2009

The debate last fall over whether California should ban gay marriage was heated. After Prop. 8 passed in November, the debate over why California decided to ban gay marriage has been just as hot.

What I'm referring to is the role of blacks and Hispanics in the passage of California's gay marriage ban. According to exit polling, 70% of African-Americans and 53% of Latinos supported Prop. 8.

Those stats led some, such as Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, to say that minority voters were the key to the ballot measure's passage:

Proposition 8, in fact, garnered 1.6 million more votes than McCain received. And, it's apparent, many of those votes - enough to make the difference - came from African American and Latino voters drawn to the polls by Obamamania.


To put it another way, had Obama not been so popular and had voter turnout been more traditional - meaning the proportion of white voters had been higher - chances are fairly strong that Proposition 8 would have failed.

This proved to be a provocative, controversial thesis. Did racial and ethnic minorities really doom gay marriage in California?

A lot of people weren't convinced. Two academics, Patrick Egan and Kenneth Sherrill, argued (moderate-sized PDF) against this conclusion -- or at least said that it was too simplistic. They pointed out that more religious voters, whether black, white or Hispanic, were more likely to support the gay marriage ban. Religiosity, more so than race, was the key variable.

But, Egan and Sherrill also argued that the exit poll simply got it wrong. Using a combination of polling data (both pre-election and post-election) and actual precinct-level results in five counties, they found that 57%-59% of African-American voters supported Prop. 8. In their post-election polling, 59% of Hispanics said they supported Prop. 8. As Walters noted, those findings didn't necessarily contradict his point that black and Hispanic turnout was key in the measure's passage -- but they did present a rather different picture than the exit poll.

So was it 70% (support from blacks) and 53% (for Latinos)? Or was it 58% and 59%? A couple of months ago, when I was thinking about all of this, I had what I thought was a very good idea. I'd find cities or towns in California that were almost entirely black or Hispanic, then look at how they voted on Prop. 8. That would give clues as to how the population as a whole voted.

As it turned out, this wasn't such a great idea. Not surprisingly, there aren't many towns in California that are almost entirely black (presumably, that's why Egan and Sherrill looked at precinct-level data). The Census doesn't update data on Hispanic populations in small towns all that often. So, I dropped it.

I took a new interest in this idea last week, though. Gay rights activists are debating whether to pursue a ballot measure to re-legalize gay marriage in California in 2010 or 2012. In 2012, President Obama will be on the ballot again, likely producing another large African-American turnout. In 2010, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa might be the Democratic candidate for governor, bringing Hispanics with him. So, this question of how minorities voted last time is not merely an academic one.

In the chart below, you'll see the results of Prop. 8 in California cities where at least 90% of the population was Hispanic in 2000.

Prop. 8 Hispanics

These numbers, I think, are pretty interesting. The exit poll said 53% of Latinos supported Prop. 8. The academic survey said it was 59%. So why did these cities with Hispanic supermajorities vote so overwhelmingly for Prop. 8?

I don't think the answer is that both the exit poll and Egan and Sherrill missed the mark -- that Hispanics actually voted to ban gay marriage by a larger margin. Instead, these numbers might prove that Egan and Sherrill got it right.

I'm willing to guess that Hispanics in monolithically Hispanic cities are more traditional that Hispanics elsewhere. I'd guess they're more likely to attend church. In cosmopolitan places like the city of Los Angeles and San Francisco, in contrast, you'd expect Hispanics (and everyone else) to be more supportive of gay marriage.

These numbers don't prove anything (I told you my idea wasn't that good). They certainly don't give gay rights supporters clear guidance as to whether to schedule the vote for 2010 or 2012. But, they may be one more sign that whenever California votes on gay marriage again, the key question is whether religious voters -- whether they're white, black, Hispanic or Asian-American -- have changed their minds.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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