Saturday, April 11, 2009

Equality if we can keep it, part 3

Equality if we can keep it, part 3: Benchmark Elections

The Iowa Legislature's Democratic leadership has successfully (no thanks to Geri Huser and Delores Mertz) stood by the constitution and stalled action on the marriage inequality amendment.

A constitutional amendment needs to pass two sessions of the legislature to go to the ballot. As long as Senate leader Mike Gronstal is breathing, the thing won't budge. To get the amendment out of the Senate, the GOP will have to take over. And the map in 2010 favors the Democrats. The earliest Republicans could realistically hope to take over the Senate is 2012, when the entire map is torn up and redrawn. That could push the amendment back as far as the 2016 presidential election, by which time we'll have had seven and a half years of weddings and seven and a half years shift in the voting demographic.

Of course, a hypothetical GOP majority could play the statewide special election card. That happened in the summer of 1999, as a Republican legislature pushed through a hurry-up vote on two tax and spending limitation amendments (the governor has no role in the amendment process). The June 29 election date had two goals: 1) the amendments were to take effect immediately, on July 1, 1999, the first day of Fiscal 2000, requiring immediate budget slashing and burning; 2) the Tuesday before 4th of July election was bound to suppress turnout.

The Iowa Republican Party launched a presidential-level vote by mail campaign, with big pictures of Chuck Grassley on the mailers. But to everyone's surprise, Democrats and labor caught up and pulled out a narrow win.

So the scenario is not neccessarily a winner, and to even get there the Republicans have to win the uphill battle for legislative control.

Though the Inequality Amendment certainly won't be on the 2010 ballot, there will be a couple of proxy wars: the constitutional convention and judicial retention.

Every ten years there's an automatic question on the Iowa ballot: "Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution, and propose amendment or amendments to same?" In the past, these votes have been very low-key with no organized Yes or No campaigns. That may change in 2010, as social conservatives see this as the fastest route to marriage inequality.

The 2000 constitutional convention vote (pdf) lost more than two to one and failed in every county. There was no pattern I could see without reformatting a lot of numbers; looked like it was between 60 to 80 percent no everywhere. And even that base of 30 percent is shaky. A constitutional convention means opening the whole can of worms, and parts of the GOP coalition are starting to flake off already.

The other matter that comes up in 2010 is judicial retention. In the nearly half century since Iowa went to a yes or no system to keep judges who are initially appointed, only four judges have ever been removed. The results are remarkably consistent: close to half the voters leave the judges, the last offices on a very long ballot, blank. Of those who do vote, it's almost always 80 percent yes to 20 percent no (that 20 percent is fueled mostly by people who vote no on ALL the judges). It's a low information contest with virtually no campaigning.

That's likely to change. Marriage equality opponoents raised the issue late in the week at their capitol rally, and Tusk and Talon has a "public service reminder" post on which judges are up which cycle. Will people look at this as a chance to punish the justices who ruled in Varnum v. Brien? Probably. But just as many people will be looking to reward those judges, so it's a wash. Plus, a too-blatant campaign risks a backlash, as there's a strong sense that judicial votes are supposed to be somehow "above" politics.

The last major campaign effort to oust a judge was in 2004. Woodbury County District Court Judge Jeffrey Neary granted a divorce to two lesbians with a Vermont civil union--thus tacitly recognizing that they were married in the first place. Despite the effort, and the relatively unfriendly western Iowa turf, Neary still won (pdf) with 59 percent and carried five of six counties, losing only in the ultimate GOP area, Sioux County. Even there he won 37 percent yes.

If marriage equality opponents can only muster 63 percent in freakin' Sioux County, where John McCain scored 81 percent and even hapless Senate candidate Christopher "Not Tom Harkin" Reed won, the chances for knocking off sitting justices in a statewide election are slim.

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