State lgbt equality laws lag behind popular opinion

by on October 28, 2009  •  In People, States

According to an article in the current American Political Science Review (103 APSR 367), popular support for enacting anti-discrimination and relationship recognition laws is significantly ahead of legislative action in most states. The authors find "a surprising amount of noncongruence [between public opinion and policy adoption]—for some policies, even clear supermajority support seems insufficient for adoption. When noncongruent, policy tends to be more conservative than desired by voters; that is, there is little progay policy bias."

The NY Times Economix blog illustrates this finding in the chart below:

Bubbles are placed to represent public opinion on a gay rights issue, with bubbles farther to the right indicating greater public support. For example, the red bubble on the line for California shows that slightly less than half of Californians say same-sex couples should have the right to marry. Filled-in bubbles signify that the policy has been adopted in that state (either by legislative or judicial action). The red bubble for California, for example, is not filled in, indicating that gays in the state are not currently allowed to marry.

Let’s take a look at the graphic [below], keeping an eye on the dashed vertical line in the middle that designates 50 percent support for any given policy. Bubbles to the right of that line have support from the majority of a state’s population; bubbles to the left of the line have support from less than half the state’s population. Notice that there are many more unfilled bubbles on the right side of the line (representing policies that the majority of people support but that have not been put into effect) than there are filled bubbles on the left side of the line (representing policies that the majority of people do not support, but that have been implemented anyway).


The big outlier is Iowa, where polls show only slightly more support for gay marriage than in Virginia, but where the state supreme court last year struck down the marriage exclusion. And if this chart is correct, the anti-gay marriage forces in Maine should be able to win the referendum there next week. If they don't, it may signify the ability of lgbt rights groups to use an election to nudge public opinion over the halfway mark, at least in some situations.

Even more statistically dramatic, though, is the gap between support for and enactment of laws protecting against job discrimination. In only 2 states does public support fall (barely) below 51% – Oklahoma and Arkansas – yet there are 29 states where legislatures have rejected anti-discrimination legislation. If this chart isn't a powerful argument for Congress to step up to a politically safe plate and pass ENDA, I don't know what is.


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