Update: Dean Barker, an actual New Hampshire resident, has posted his take on the town meeting votes. Click over to Blue Hampshire and have a read. In an email, he reminded me that “the two anti-marriage bills went down in flames [in the legislature] on 2/17″. (my diary on that here) I think this is a good point – it makes me wonder if some pro-equality supporters felt they could sit out the warrant vote because the imminent legislative threat was over.
Over 130 New Hampshire towns had their annual Town Meeting Tuesday. Town Meeting is an exercise in direct democracy, where voters act as citizen-legislators and vote on everything from the town budget to the location of a new stop sign. This year, most towns also voted on a non-binding resolution, called a “warrant”, that asks their state legislators to put the state’s constitutional definition of marriage on the statewide ballot.
Before Town Meeting, the Union Leader had characterized the state’s mood as “sour” due to budgetary concerns. Common wisdom today is that only the conservatives and the cranks turn out to vote at such times, and that explains the anti-gay vote on the warrant. I’m not so sure I’d want to find solace in such an explanation, as it implies that there is nothing you can put on the ballot, be it anti-gay bigotry or budgetary reality, that can induce non-conservatives and pro-equality voters to get off their sofas. It raises the uncomfortable question, if there is truly a majority of pro-equality voters, why aren’t they angry enough about the existence of anti-gay warrants to show up and vote?New Hampshire has just become the umpteenth state to prove that its electorate is in no way exceptional, that anti-gay animus is still the rule. As we well know, every state that has put the definition of marriage up for popular vote, whether on a statewide ballot or town warrants, has voted to keep legal marriage the special right of heterosexuals.
Jon Greenberg from New Hampshire Public Radio summed up the New Hampshire situation nicely:
By itself, this [warrant] has no legal force. Only lawmakers in Concord have the power to put such a question on a statewide ballot. Passage or rejection [of the warrant] in any town would be expressions of voter sentiment.
What we have here is the difference between direct and representative democracy. At the town level, with a few exceptions, citizens have direct control over many governmental decisions. That includes the ability to put an item to a popular vote. At the state level, it’s up to lawmakers.
Putting the definition of marriage on a town warrant is an effort to use a tool of direct democracy to leverage change in a system that runs according to the rules of representative democracy.
Thank heavens for our state and federal constitutions, which were crafted to defend the minority against the tyranny of the majority. Thank heavens for the courts in place to defend those constitutions through honest interpretation. And thank heavens for the system of representative democracy at the state and federal levels, intended to buffer the more outrageous passions of the electorate.