Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Do Popular Votes on Rights Create Animosity toward Minorities?

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Do Popular Votes on Rights Create Animosity toward Minorities?

Article excerpt


We examine whether votes on minority rights make the public less sympathetic to the targeted group. Panel data are used to test whether votes on marriage changed public attitudes about gays and lesbians. We propose the marriage debate had a stigmatizing effect on attitudes about gays and lesbians in states where marriage was on the ballot. Results reveal a conditional relationship. Religious people in states where marriage was voted on had lower affect for gays and lesbians after the campaign. Independent of policy outcomes, subjecting a minority group to public judgment about rights may promote animus toward the group.


public opinion, same-sex marriage, direct democracy, ballot measures, attitudes about homosexuality


Examples of voter-approved ballot initiatives that target minorities for differential treatment are numerous. Early in the twentieth century, Oklahomans approved an initia- tive stripping voting rights from African Americans. California voted to prohibit Asians from owning land, and Arizonans passed an initiative that prohibited employment of immigrants (Cronin 1987). In the later decades of that century, voters in several states approved ballot measures that repealed school desegregation. Californians approved initiatives repealing fair access to housing and barring illegal immigrants from access to public services. Voters in Arizona and other states made English an "official" language, and Colorado passed an initiative that prohibited extending antidiscrimination protections to gays and lesbians (Gamble 1997; HoSang 2010). California voters passed an initiative that repealed bilingual education programs, and voters in multiple states approved initiatives repealing applications of affirmative action when based on criteria of race and ethnicity. More recently, voters in several states approved ballot measures that denied same-sex couples access to marriage rights enjoyed by opposite sex couples. This article explores how votes on same-sex marriage affected popular attitudes about gays and lesbians in 2004.

Direct Democracy and Minorities

Scholarly research has produced a somewhat conflicted portrait of how direct democracy affects minorities and minority rights. A number of studies stress that minorities are harmed by direct democracy because it allows a majority of voters' fears and prejudices to be expressed in policies that target minorities and restrict minority rights. Classic studies (Stouffer 1955) have established that the publics' initial response to questions about "out groups" is almost universally intolerant. Moreover, white voters' racial attitudes and racial animus have been shown to affect how they vote in candidate contests (Kinder and Sanders 1996; Mendelberg 2001; Reeves 1997; Sniderman and Piazza 1993). It may come as little surprise, then, that voters frequently approve ballot mea- sures targeting minority groups. Gamble (1997) demon- strated that initiatives restricting the civil rights of minorities passed at a much higher rate than initiatives on all other subjects. Haider-Markel, Querze, and Lindaman (2007) also showed that minorities (gays and lesbians) lost more often than they won when questions about their rights were decided by a public vote. Hajnal, Gerber, and Louch (2003) showed that racial and ethnic minority vot- ers were regularly on the losing side of racially targeted propositions. Tolbert and Hero (1996) contend that the popularity of initiatives targeting minorities can be explained in terms of the "threat" that a diverse racial/ ethnic context poses to white voters (see also Branton and Jones 2005; Key 1949; Tolbert and Grummel 2003).

Another set of results suggest that direct democracy has a more benign effect on minority groups and minority rights. A comprehensive study of voting on initiatives in California demonstrated that the vast majority of initia- tives were not racially targeted, and that most Latino/a American, Asian American, and African American voters were on the winning side of a large proportion of ballot measures. …

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