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Do Popular Votes on Rights Create Animosity Toward Minorities?

- August 7, 2013

Continuing our new series of collaborations with political science journals, we are pleased to present the following guest post from University of Western Washington political scientist Todd Donovan to discuss his article with University of Iowa political scientist Caroline Tolbert “Do Popular Votes on Rights Create Animosity Toward Minorities?” that appears in the current issue of Political Research Quarterly.  In conjunction with this post, SAGE will make the article freely available to all for the next 30 days; you can download it here.


Americans regularly make major decisions about minorities and minority rights via the purely majoritarian process of direct democracy.   Conflict over the substance of these policies occasionally reaches the US Supreme Court, but effects of the process of direct democracy on perceptions of minorities receive little attention.  My recent study of campaigns against same sex marriage (Minnesota Law Review), and research I’ve conducted with Caroline Tolbert published recently in Political Research Quarterly, highlight some concerns about the process.  Campaigns against a minority right appear similar to campaigns against the minority itself, as campaigns target the minority as a threat to the majority.

Voters have banned the sale of land to Asians, repealed fair housing legislation, repealed school desegregation, prohibited undocumented workers from receiving public services, and repealed public affirmative action programs. Thirty one states – including California with Prop. 8 in 2008 – voted to ban same sex marriage.  Beyond any policy effects, our study of public opinion found that the anti-marriage campaigns affected what people thought about lesbians and gays. We found animosity toward lesbian and gays increased in 2004 among religious people living in states where marriage was on the ballot.

When the constitutionality of these popularly enacted policies are challenged in court, the primary legal issues may involve how the laws are being applied, and 14th Amendment equal protection claims.  These were at issue in Romer v. Evans, when the Court overturned Colorado’s voter approved law prohibiting “special rights” for lesbians and gays.  This June, the Court largely avoided this when, in Hollingsworth v Perry, they decided that Prop. 8’s proponents lacked standing to appeal an earlier district court ruling.

Neither of these cases gave explicit consideration to effects of the process of direct democracy on a minority group.   This may change next session, when the Court considers a Michigan initiative that restricted affirmative action.  One issue in Schuette v Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action is whether the initiative changed policymaking affecting a racial minority (university admissions policy is now made via the ballot box) in a way that burdens the minority’s ability to affect the policy.  Our research suggests the effects direct democracy may go deeper – if campaigns against a pro-minority policy stigmatize public perceptions of the minority group that benefits from the policy.

Opinion polls suggest that if Prop. 8 were put before California voters today, same sex marriage would be approved.  Indeed, same sex marriage was approved by voters in Washington, Maine, and Maryland in 2012.  Given this rapid and recent change in attitudes, a campaign against same-sex marriage (and by extension, against lesbians and gays) today may not have the capacity to stigmatize as it did before.  Yet this need not mean that there isn’t potential for campaigns over other policies that benefit a minority to stigmatize public perceptions of the targeted minority group.  A July 2013 Quinnipiac poll found that nearly three-quarters of Americans felt that universities should not be allowed to use race as a factor in admissions.  A 2011 poll found most respondents agreeing that Muslims “undermine American culture.”  In the context of attitudes such as these, direct democracy campaigns may not only produce outcomes that constrain the rights and influence of minorities, but may also generate increased animosity toward the group.