Elected Bodies Should Not Endorse

Thursday, 2008-10-23; 12:34:14

Yesterday, I attended a meeting of the Graduate Student Council at Stanford. I do this every week, even though I’m not an elected member, because I think it’s good to stay informed about what’s going on in the Stanford graduate student community.

Earlier in the week, the Undergraduate Senate at Stanford had approved a resolution opposing Proposition 8, and the same resolution was presented to the GSC at yesterday’s meeting, with the goal of having both bodies formally oppose Proposition 8.

Proposition 8, if you somehow haven’t heard of it, is a ballot initiative in California that will eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. The California Supreme Court recently ruled that a previous law on the books was unconstitutional, and Proposition 8 seeks to overturn that decision by enshrining a definition of marriage — as between one man and one woman — into the California state constitution.

As I said, I’m not an elected member of the GSC. But the GSC likes to vote on things by consensus, and anyone, even non-elected members, can object to a decision and force a vote by elected members.
I detest Proposition 8. I think that writing discrimination into a state constitution or even the U.S. constitution is wrong. I voted against Proposition 8 myself, and I hope that enough California citizens vote against it so that the ballot measure fails. Nevertheless, I objected to the resolution. (In a week, you should be able to listen to the discussion here.)

I’ve been thinking about this for the past day or so, and I want to write down why I object to this. Not because I feel slighted by the final outcome of the vote or because I think people misunderstand my position, but just to formalize my views for future reference.

A Monopoly on Civil Rights

One of the main arguments that was brought up in support of the resolution was the fact that Proposition 8 deals with civil rights. I agree. But there are many other decisions to be made on the California ballot that deal with civil rights.

Civil rights, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, are “the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality”. Proposition 4 deals with a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion or not regardless of the feelings or positions of others. This is “social freedom”. The government should not be in the business of telling a woman what she can and can’t do with her own body.

Proposition 11 deals with how the state of California constructs its districts, which determine which areas contain the constituents of state representatives, state senators, and U.S. representatives. Proposition 11 seeks to reduce the possibility of gerrymandering, which draws political lines creating districts that can minimize the effects of a certain portion of the population — blacks or latinos, for example — such that their views are not accurately represented in the state legislature or the U.S. Congress. This is “political equality”, i.e.: civil rights.

In fact, I would argue that the choice between McCain, Obama, and the numerous other third party candidates on the ballot is also a civil rights issue. Obama supports a woman’s right to choose, support’s equal rights for same-sex couples (even though he is formally against “gay marriage”), and wants to help equalize pay between the genders. These are social freedom, social equality, political equality, respectively, all parts of what is called “civil rights”. McCain wants to leave all three of these issues up to the states.

Why isn’t the GSC endorsing positions on any of these other issues? Why aren’t they formally opposing Proposition 4? Why aren’t they passing a resolution on Proposition 11? Why not endorse Barack Obama? Why focus solely on Proposition 8 if their reason for doing so is because of civil rights?

It’s an inconsistent policy, and, arguably, they’re taking a stand on the least important issue on the ballot — and this brings me to my next point.

Proposition 8 is Symbolic

Of the four decisions on the November ballot that I have cited above, I’d argue that Proposition 8 is the least important civil rights issue, despite it getting the lion’s share of attention by the media and by citizens.

California is one of the most progressive states in the nation, and already has passed laws that give same-sex couples the same state rights as opposite-sex couples. Sure, it’s defined under the term “domestic partnership” and not “marriage”, but the rights are, for the most part, there.

Furthermore, whether or not California allows same-sex couples to marry can not affect policy on a federal level. The Defense of Marriage Act was passed in 1996 under the Clinton administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. Same-sex couples can not file their federal income taxes jointly, and are not afforded the same rights as opposite-sex couples on the federal level. Preventing Proposition 8 from passing does not change this fact.

So if same-sex couples in California will still have no rights at the federal level regardless of whether Proposition 8 passes, and they’ll still have rights at the state level regardless of whether Proposition 8 passes, what’s the point of Proposition 8?


Separating same-sex couple rights (domestic partnerships) and opposite-sex couple rights (marriages) creates a situation similar to segregation in schools based on race that was prominent in the United States just a few decades ago. Plessy v. Ferguson, a decision made by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1896 supported the idea of “separate but equal”, in regards to racially segregated schools in Kansas. But in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed its previous position in the case Brown v. Board of Education; in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s own words, “We conclude that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The same thing applies to “domestic partnerships” vs. “marriages”. Practically, the state legislature must ensure that when it passes new laws, it needs to make sure that the language applies equally to domestic partnerships as it does to marriages, and inevitably a few laws will fall through the cracks. The execution of maintaining equality between the two will also not necessarily be ideal. Domestic partnerships will always slightly lag behind marriages if they are created as a separate category. (Yes Gov. Palin, I do know my Supreme Court cases.)

But this doesn’t change the fact that same-sex couples already enjoy the same rights that opposite-sex couples do, at the state level.

Proposition 4, in contrast, tangibly takes away the rights of many women across the entire state to have an abortion, without being pressured into a decision one way or another by anybody else. These are tangible rights that are being taken away.

Proposition 11 hopes to reduce gerrymandering, which typically reduces the voice of minorities by causing their votes to effect little change in their representatives. The most important right defined by the constitution of the United States is the right to vote, and Proposition 11 could materially impact the make-up of the state legislature or California’s group of U.S. representatives. These are people that will be able to materially effect change at a state and federal level, and accurate representation of the state is paramount.

And the candidate who gets elected to the office of the Presidency of the United States has enormous impact on how laws are enacted such that he will be able to protect the civil rights of all Americans, or not, if he chooses to drag his feet. This decision will strongly affect the rights and freedoms afforded to Americans.

Proposition 8? Not so much. It’s symbolic, and symbolic votes can have a material impact too, but in terms of actual rights and freedoms, Propositions 4, 11, and voting for President will actually affect things much more broadly and much more quickly.

So for the GSC to vote only on a resolution opposing Proposition 8 is actually pretty ridiculous. And now we come to the final, strongest point.

Citizens Elect Representatives, Representatives do not Elect Citizens

In our democracy, or representative republic, such that it is, citizens elect their representatives. Citizens tell their representatives if they approve or disapprove of their job by electing them or not. Representatives should not tell citizens how to vote.

Similarly, in partial direct democracies like California, where citizens can directly enact or reject bills proposed by both the legislature and by other citizens, representatives should not tell citizens how to vote either. Propositions on the ballot are decided by citizens, not by representatives.

Proposition 1A is different, because it was created by the legislature and is referred to citizens for approval.
Thus, for an elected body like the GSC to formally oppose Proposition 8 is analogous to the United States Senate formally endorsing Barack Obama for President. It’s analogous to the California State Legislature formally supporting Proposition 7. Elected bodies should not be in the business of telling citizens how to vote. Period.

Civil Disobedience

I know it sucks that 50% of the state can say whether same-sex couples can get married or not. I know it sucks that federal law does not recognize same-sex marriages. And I do not support Proposition 8, and am supportive of strong efforts to convince other citizens to vote against Proposition 8 as well.

Stand in public and make a case to passers-by about why they should vote against Proposition 8. Stage protests and events and invite everybody to come and learn about why Proposition 8 is a terrible thing. Make a line connecting the NO arrow for Proposition 8 on your mail-in ballot, and then convince others to do the same. Organize counter-protests at pro-Proposition 8 rallies. Publicly oppose Proposition 8 and talk to all your friends about why they should oppose it. Even elected representatives from the GSC can personally endorse a NO vote for Proposition 8.

But elected bodies should shut the fuck up. They’re not my mother, and they’re not anybody else’s mother, and they can’t (and shouldn’t) tell us what to do.

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