The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's regular columnist Lori Sturdevant (usually pretty savvy in matters relating to the state legislature) came out strongly in favor of stopping all engines in the run for marriage equality in her column of Sunday November 18. In spite of the recent vote by Minnesotans against a proposed amendment that would have banned same sex marriage, Sturdevant stubbornly advocated "continuing the conversation," in part because 75 out of Minnesota's 87 counties voted in favor of the amendment.
That prompted me to "continue the conversation" on my own, with a letter to the editor. A couple of days later, I followed that up with a full sized commentary piece (i.e., an editorial). Yesterday the Strib published my LTE.
Here's my LTE as I wrote it:
While Lori Sturdevant opines that marriage equality might be "on ice" (Nov. 18) because only 75 out of Minnesota's 87 counties voted for it, she apparently forgets that acres don't vote, people do. Rock County has only a quarter of one representative in the state house of representatives, because it must combine with neighboring Pipestone, Murray, and Lincoln counties to make up one district. The same is true for Kittson, Roseau, and Marshall counties; and for Pennington, Red Lake, and Polk counties. Those ten counties and their three representatives are easily outvoted by Hennepin County alone, which accounts for about 26 representatives.Sturdevant's piece was about framing: she was concern-trolling that rural Dems might catch the heat, but totally ignoring the other half of that equation, which is just as valid, of Republicans catching heat.
So instead of fretting that rural Democrats will pay a political price if they vote in favor of marriage equality, shouldn't we really be fretting that suburban Republicans will pay the price if they vote against it?
The Strib printed it pretty much as-is (though they did edit out the first two words.) But I was not quite satisfied with that. So I did a little digging in the election results, counted a few noses, and became even more convinced that marriage equality has an excellent chance to pass the legislature this session. I followed up my LTE a couple of days later with the following editorial (which they didn't print).
(A note for you non-Minnesotans: DFL is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, Minnesota's own version of the Democrats.)
The election of November 6 shook things up in the Minnesota legislature, with voters returning Democrats to control of both the House and the Senate by comfortable margins. At the same time, voters rejected a proposal to constitutionally restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples only. The margin by which the amendment failed was larger than polls predicted.
But the failure of the amendment does not, by itself, make marriage equality the law. Current Minnesota law bans same-sex marriage, and that would have to be repealed before same-sex couples in Minnesota could marry. In a recent column, Lori Sturdevant suggested that marriage equality might be "on ice" for a while, in part because the marriage amendment actually was favored in 75 of Minnesota's 87 counties. But a closer look casts doubt on such pessimism: the counties in which the amendment was favored are nearly all rural and lightly populated, often having less than a single legislative vote per county. Meanwhile the counties where the amendment was rejected include densely populated urban areas that are strongly represented in the legislature.
Minnesota's own Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed in 1997. If we suppose that a bill to repeal that act is introduced this session (a safe bet), and if every legislator in the upcoming session voted on that bill in the same manner as his or her constituents voted on the marriage amendment, the marriage equality bill would pass the House by a vote of 76-56 — not counting two uncertain votes in districts where the amendment received plurality, but not majority, support. It would pass the Senate by a vote of 37-28, with two votes uncertain. With Governor Dayton willing to sign such a bill if it reaches his desk, the opponents of marriage equality would seem to have their work cut out for them.
There might still be a chance for Republicans to block repeal of Minnesota's DOMA, but it's a slim one. A district that voted Yes on the amendment and is represented by a Republican legislator is quite likely to be a solid vote against repealing DOMA. Similarly, a district that voted No and is represented by a DFLer is likely a solid vote in favor of repeal. By that standard, in the House there would be 55 solid votes for marriage equality and 40 solid votes against. That leaves 18 DFLers and 21 Republicans representing districts that voted the "opposite way" on the amendment. For Republicans to block DOMA repeal, they would need to retain all of their own votes in "opposite way" districts, while peeling off at least seven DFLers in opposite way districts. Is that feasible?
Of course there's no way to know for certain how an "opposite way" legislator would vote; a lot of things work into any political calculus like this. But imagine a legislator who won by a very narrow margin: it seems likely that she would be very keen to keep her ear to the ground and follow the wishes of her constituents. By contrast, a legislator who wins by a comfortable margin might feel less constituent pressure and perhaps more likely to vote the party line. If that's a critical factor, we could make a guess at the likely vote of each legislator in an "opposite way" district by checking to see if the legislator's winning vote margin was greater or less than the vote margin of the marriage amendment in that district, and assign the legislative vote accordingly. By that logic, house Republicans would pick up eight DFL votes in mostly rural conservative districts. But they would also lose eleven Republican votes, primarily in moderate suburban areas, and marriage equality would pass by a vote of 74-60.
In the Senate the story is similar: there would seem to be 29 solid votes for marriage equality, 20 solid votes against, with 10 DFLers and 8 Republicans in "opposite way" districts. Assigning those by the same method, the GOP would gain seven DFL votes in conservative districts, but lose four Republicans in moderate districts, and marriage equality would pass narrowly 36-31. So don't be surprised if sometime this spring, Minnesota becomes the tenth state to allow same sex marriage.