Infighting, voter fatigue and a slow fundraising start appear to have plagued efforts by conservatives to place a measure on the 2006 ballot banning same-sex marriage in California.
The attempts to amend the California Constitution suffered a setback in recent days when two groups conceded that they would not qualify for the June 2006 ballot.
One group, ProtectMarriage.com, gathered fewer than half the 598,000 signatures required by Tuesday’s deadline. Organizers said they might still decide to press ahead for the ballot next November, but a confluence of events has made it unlikely.
While the battle against same-sex marriage was an issue to conservatives this summer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s September veto of a bill to legalize such unions defused the issue for the time being. Furthermore, the California Supreme Court is not expected to rule until 2007 on whether the existing law limiting marriage to heterosexuals passes constitutional muster.
“Everything we need to educate voters about the need for such a measure has been temporarily taken away,” said ProtectMarriage.com’s legal counsel, Andrew Pugno. “I think it is very unlikely there will be any measure on the ballot this coming year.”
Meanwhile, VoteYesMarriage.com, led by Randy Thomasson of the Campaign for Children and Families, announced that it would not circulate petitions until it raises enough money to guarantee a successful drive by paid signature gatherers. Its initiative might not make a ballot until 2008, he said.
If no such measure appears on a ballot in 2006, it would be a clear defeat for conservatives.
Thomasson stood beneath a banner in May proclaiming “1 Man + 1 Woman = Marriage” and vowed to get a measure on the ballot in 2006 saying “judges and politicians have no right to flush marriage down the drain.”
Members of the ProtectMarriage.com coalition also pledged in a media event in April that they were aiming for the June 2006 ballot. That announcement came a day after an Assembly bill to legalize same-sex marriage sponsored by Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) cleared two committees.
Thomasson’s group, which is supported by the Rev. Lou Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition, has for months taken swipes at ProtectMarriage.com, which is backed by Focus on the Family and other conservative national Christian organizations. Thomasson did so again Tuesday, calling the competing measure weak and inviting voters to abandon it in favor of his.
“People want true blue marriage protection. They don’t want petitions they’ve signed to just sit in an office instead of being turned in,” he said.
The competing initiatives -- and the bickering -- may have caused some confusion among volunteer signature gatherers, Pugno said.
But infighting among conservatives is just one of many factors that appear to have derailed or delayed a high-stakes ballot campaign to ban same-sex marriage.
Voters in 19 states have passed ballot measures outlawing same-sex marriage in the last two years. The mobilization came in part as a response to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s February 2004 decision to issue marriage licenses -- later invalidated by the state’s high court -- to 4,000 gay and lesbian couples.
California’s November 2006 ballot fight was expected to be the most visible in the nation, with heavy political consequences. Two hundred gay rights, labor and civil rights groups -- such as the NAACP and the United Farm Workers -- have teamed up to campaign against the measures.
Gay rights advocates have already begun knocking on doors and addressing community groups in an attempt to sway voters. Equality California, a key participant, last month hired six field coordinators to blanket the state, even conservative counties such as Placer.
Both Democratic contenders for governor have weighed in against the measures, which a national gay rights group estimated would cost $10 million to $15 million to combat.
But the battle may not be fought next year after all.
Opponents of gay marriage offered numerous explanations.
Hurricanes diverted charitable contributions this fall, said Peter Henderson, chairman of ProtectMarriage.com’s steering committee. November’s special election drained the time and money of conservative volunteers and donors focused on the abortion parental notification measure that narrowly failed, he said.
“This was supposed to be an off year politically, and it was anything but,” Henderson said. “One of the factors is people are tired.”
The coalition still could push ahead with an effort to make the November ballot if enough money flows in to finance a paid signature-gathering campaign, Henderson said. But it may instead wait for a more opportune time.
“You go multiple rounds in order to win in a contest. This is just round one, and we’re not going to go away,” he said.
Thomasson, meanwhile, also vowed to press ahead. He declined to say how much money his group has raised -- it will file a disclosure at the end of January -- but said “people are giving generously.”
However, the content of the measures may also prove problematic, analysts say.
In addition to limiting marriage to between one man and one woman, VoteYesMarriage.com would roll back marriage-like benefits already granted to domestic partners through the state’s domestic partner registry.
The ProtectMarriage.com initiative is simpler in its language. But California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer has concluded that it would also roll back existing domestic partner benefits.
Polls show that Californians are clearly supportive of domestic partnership benefits, said Mark Baldassare, research director of the Public Policy Institute of California. That was true even when voters passed Proposition 22 in 2000 reiterating the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and stating that same-sex marriages approved elsewhere would not be valid in California.
A San Francisco Superior Court judge earlier this year ruled that Proposition 22 and another California law limiting marriage to heterosexuals were unconstitutional.
That ruling has been appealed. The issue is expected to be decided by the California Supreme Court after an appellate court rules on the matter next year.
Voter opinions are another matter. Since the passage of Proposition 22, Baldassare said, Californians appear to have gradually softened their views on same-sex marriage.
In 2000, polls showed that only 38% of likely voters in California supported same-sex marriage. But a poll this August showed 46% supporting it and 46% opposing. Among all California adults, 44% favored same-sex marriage and 48% opposed it, he said.
Gay rights advocates are nevertheless pressing ahead for a fight.
“We don’t take very seriously their claim that they’re not moving forward for next year,” said Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, who suggested that the pullback by conservatives may be a ruse to stir support among conservative backers.
Focus on the Family has already begun putting money into ProtectMarriage.com, Kors noted, and “could put $1 million into signature gathering in 24 hours.
“It would be very surprising that the extreme right would give up on the largest state in the nation,” Kors said. “We are moving full steam ahead preparing for what we think will be a major battle in November.”