Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Framing the Civil Unions and Marriage Ban Debate

It’s interesting to see where the civil unions and marriage ban debate is at a little under a week before the actual vote.

It seems the crux of the debate has centered on the effects of the amendment passing, particularly the second sentence.

Those who oppose the ban are talking up the harmful impact the second sentence will have on a wide range of benefits for all unmarried couples, while those who support the ban are claiming that opponents are overstating the effects of the second sentence.

Conspicuously absent from the debate is an emphasis on what will happen if the amendment doesn’t pass.

In other words, while the impact of the ban passing is receiving tons of scrutiny, the actual need for the ban has been largely glossed over.

When questioned on the issue, amendment supporters point to Massachusetts and Vermont. The problem with this, of course, is that Wisconsin is not Massachusetts or Vermont. This state has a different constitution, different laws, and different courts than those states and all other states.

What I have not seen from the pro-ban crowd is a convincing case demonstrating that here in Wisconsin judges would or even could use the our state constitution to force the allowance of gay marriage or something substantially similar to it. There should be some burden on the pro-ban side to make this case -- without using the words "Massachusetts," "Vermont," or now "New Jersey" -- if they want voters in Wisconsin to make the significant step of altering the constitution.

Unfortunately, though, the public's attention often isn't focused on political questions long enough to consider multiple layers of a debate. And, if one frame had to be chosen, the fact that the public debate has been framed primarily around the effects of the second sentence is a victory for the anti-ban side because it gets people thinking about those effects and not the fear – however unfounded – that Wisconsin will be the next Massachusetts or Vermont.

If the emphasis of the debate was on that fear of the amendment not passing, it would be much easier for the pro-ban crowd to convince voters to vote yes with talk about what “might” happen if the amendment didn’t pass and, of course, frequent use of that favorite ambiguous GOP phrase “judicial activism.”

(Side-Note: Kevin Ryan at Milwaukee Ramblings has a good discussion of the roots and purpose of American judicial activism.)

One look at the odd and slightly off-putting “Vote Yes” television spot released this week gives a glimpse of what the pro-ban side would prefer to be discussing -- and it doesn't have anything to do with the second sentence.

(Side-Note: Any complaints from conservatives on the use of children in the “Vote Yes” ad? Considering the outrage expressed after Doyle used a mother and daughter in an ad earlier this year, I would think there would be some.)

Instead, though, it’s the anti-ban crowd that’s been able to use concern over what “might” happen if the amendment is passed by raising legitimate fears about the broad reaching effects of writing social policy into the state constitution.

At the very least it appears this framing victory for the anti-ban side will lead to a closer vote on the Wisconsin amendment than any other marriage ban vote in other states in recent years (the closest to date is Oregon, which in 2004 went 57 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed).

We’ll need to wait a week to see if the framing victory can actually translate into a voting victory.

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