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Social Issue Scorecard
While the economy took center stage in the 2008 presidential race, social issues were injected into Tuesday's election by way of several state ballot referendums.
Through ballot initiatives, voters have the opportunity to effect legislation or amend their state's constitution. This year, referendums addressed issues that have taken a backseat to our nation's severe financial crisis, collapsed housing market, five-year-long occupation in Iraq, and worsening energy crisis. Activists are now assessing the outcome of these socially relevant ballot measures, as some may further social progress while others may hinder it.
Wiretap looked into some of the major referendums decided on this week. Here's our analysis on some of the major social justice issues that Americans voted on.
Perhaps the saddest initiative that passed on Tuesday is one that seeks to strip certain Americans of their basic civil rights. Proposition 8, a proposed amendment to California's constitution that would define marriage as only between a man and a woman, passed on Tuesday, making it impossible for same-sex couples to enjoy the rights given to their heterosexual counterparts.
Already, some Californian couples have been married or awarded domestic partnership multiple times, only to have their rights taken away each time. First, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. Then, the California Supreme Court reversed that decision, and all marriages were annulled. This May, though, the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. But, on Tuesday, Prop 8 overturned that ruling. Already, civil rights lawyers are going to the mattresses, and it could be just a matter of time before the overturned ruling gets overturned once again.
Thanh Ngo, an attorney living in California, wrote about the legal game of ping pong that his own relationship has endured in a piece for New America Media. Having already been married three times to the same man, Ngo described how Prop 8 threatens the legal protections that marriage has provided his relationship.
Two other states, Florida and Arizona, surprised no one by also passing bans on gay marriage.
In an equally depressing move, Arkansas passed an initiative to ban unmarried couples from adopting children or becoming foster parents. This has been seen as a coded attack on gay couples, although it also affects unmarried straight couples and likely single prospective parents as well.
Reproductive rights activists are applauding South Dakota for voting against a ban on all abortions except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the mother's health. Introducing this ban was an attempt by anti-abortion groups to have the U.S. Supreme Court reexamine Roe v. Wade, since if the ban was passed, it would likely be appealed all the way up to this high court.
In Colorado, a measure to define human life as beginning at conception was struck down. The measure proved especially controversial because defining life in such a way would legally redefine abortion as equivalent to murder.
Also voted down was a California initiative requiring doctors to notify parents if pregnant teenagers seek abortions.
The defeat of all three measures, says reproductive health organization Planned Parenthood, conveys Americans' support of upholding the rights to privacy and individual choice. North Dakota and Minnesota Planned Parenthood CEO Sarah Stoesz said:
South Dakotans have affirmed by their votes tonight that no vague law can account for every individual circumstance. And that is precisely why women and families, not the government, should make these personal healthcare decisions.
Massachusetts voted Tuesday to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Possessing less than an ounce of pot will now only lead to a fine of $100. Anyone who's seen The Wire knows that this small legislative step is far more meaningful than a mere shout-out to lazy potheads. Decriminalizing small-scale possession can, at the very least, cut down on the number of drug related arrests, freeing up needed space in prisons and allowing law enforcement officers to focus on more urgent things like violent crime. Decriminalizing pot altogether can cut down on violent crime associated with the drug trade.
Norm Stamper, former police chief of Seattle, Washington, explained why he calls for going a step further and legalizing marijuana -- and all drugs. In an op-ed for the LA Times, he wrote:
I've witnessed the devastating effects of open-air drug markets in residential neighborhoods: children recruited as runners, mules and lookouts; drug dealers and innocent citizens shot dead in firefights between rival traffickers bent on protecting or expanding their markets; dedicated narcotics officers tortured and killed in the line of duty; prisons filled with nonviolent drug offenders; and drug-related foreign policies that foster political instability, wreak health and environmental disasters, and make life even tougher for indigenous subsistence farmers in places such as Latin America and Afghanistan. All because we like our drugs -- and can't have them without breaking the law.
As an illicit commodity, drugs cost and generate extravagant sums of (laundered, untaxed) money, a powerful magnet for character-challenged police officers.
Although small in numbers of offenders, there isn't a major police force -- the Los Angeles Police Department included -- that has escaped the problem: cops, sworn to uphold the law, seizing and converting drugs to their own use, planting dope on suspects, robbing and extorting pushers, taking up dealing themselves, intimidating or murdering witnesses.
In declaring a war on drugs, we've declared war on our fellow citizens.
In this way, activists working to legalize pot see the vote in Massachusetts as a step in the right direction for social justice.
California, on the other hand, may have taken a step backward in criminal justice. The state voted to withhold drug treatment for many non-violent prisoners. In the same initiative, the state made it more difficult for violent criminals to qualify for parole. The California ballot measure, therefore, seems to ignore calls by prisoner rights advocates for rehabilitation versus mere incarceration.
A Quest For Progress?
Tuesday's election resulted in some strides and some missteps in social progress, according to progressive activists. Many advocates for civil rights, abortion rights and criminal justice hope that these social issues will resurface when President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January. How the new president and a new Congress will tackle these issues is so far anyone's guess.
Suemedha Sood is a 2007 fellow in the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The former assistant editor at the Center for American Progress, she is a frequent contributor to WireTap.
Also in Voting and Elections
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- Youth in Action: Carmen Berkley, the United States Student Association by Suemedha Sood
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- Youth in Action: Alex Aronson, The Bus Project by Onnesha Roychoudhuri
- Parties And Questions by KJ Meyer