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Justine Sarver Headshot
Rea Carey Headshot

After Prop 8 Decision, Progressives Must Think Broadly, Boldly About Ballot Measures

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Now that California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage has fallen, many supporters of LGBT equality are thinking about our next strategic steps: With so many loving families still living in states with marriage bans, what will it take to overturn bans that were passed by ballot measure? And how will we enact other important initiatives that benefit LGBT people, women, working families and new Americans?

At the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, we care deeply about this work. New research we conducted together sheds light on how progressives can work together effectively on ballot measures to expand people's rights rather than chip them away.

Because of our commitment to understanding the art and science of ballot measures -- and because they're not going away any time soon -- the Task Force and the BISC Foundation's research sought to better understand how voters respond when confronted with a number of ballot measures on different subjects. While we recognize the dangers in having a majority vote on a minority's rights, our research gets at the heart of what it will take to expand marriage equality -- and to build a broader progressive coalition to improve everything from workers' rights to voting rights.

Our partner, the respected firm Lake Research Partners conducted the research, administering telephone surveys last November in Maryland and Washington State, shortly after voters made history by voting to allow same-sex marriage. These states also had other initiatives on their ballots, allowing us to ask voters more questions about their experiences across various issues.

The research revealed several important findings about the intensity of support on both sides for marriage equality and the most strategic timing for proactive measures. It also sheds light on areas where our movements could work together more effectively.

Both our organizations believe progressive groups must think broadly and work together to make positive change happen. Because our resources are limited -- but our ideas are big -- we must collaborate to pass ballot measures on marriage equality, economic fairness, voting rights, immigration, reproductive justice and more.

What does that mean in real life?

We must put forward our own great ideas. Although ballot measures originated as a progressive check on legislative overreach by special interests, they are frequently used to attack us. As a result, many progressives view ballot measures warily. But our research showed that progressives were eager to vote "yes" to expand LGBT equality in Maryland and Washington. While we will always have to play a certain amount of defense, we believe that progressives must strategically put forward our own great ideas that will advance people's rights rather than strip them away.

Not every proactive idea is a good one, and not every one will succeed, but there are victories to be had -- just ask supporters of fiscal fairness in Californiaand Oregon and believers in marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.

We must collaborate -- early and often. Our research revealed that there is a broad coalition of voters who support a range of progressive issues. It's our job to reach them effectively. Rather than working only in our own niches, progressives must maximize our resources by working together. Some of our best work happens when we build coalitions, conduct joint research and work shoulder to shoulder in our state organizing efforts.

We must seek synergy. Our research confirmed that ballot measures on social issues fare better when progressive candidates and issues are on the ballot. Many Maryland voters who backed the president also turned out for marriage equality and the pro-immigrant DREAM Act. When progressives put proactive ideas forward, we should seek out these synergies.

We must think broadly. Too often, work and funding for ballot measures has been considered narrowly and seen through only one lens. Yet, a measure on voting rights is important to more than just new citizens and people of color -- it affects transgender people, women (who are more apt to change their names than men), college students and older Americans. It affects all of us, which is why we must take a more expansive view of issues "we own" and those that "belong to someone else."

As the late Senator Paul Wellstone said, "We all do better when we all do better." We couldn't agree more.

Sarver is the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center and Carey is the Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.