Equality California Launches “Decline to Sign” Drive
Effort Seeks to Keep Anti-Marriage Initiative Off the Ballot
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Photo of Sarah Reece by Mark Gabrish Conlan
Facing the prospect of an anti-marriage initiative on the November 2008 ballot that will permanently amend the California state constitution to keep same-sex couples from having access to civil marriage — which will mean having to raise millions of dollars to defeat it — the Equality for All coalition campaign is adopting a strategy to keep the initiative from getting on the ballot at all. It’s called “Decline to Sign,” and it’s aimed at getting volunteers out at shopping malls and other spaces where the anti-marriage petition is circulating to let people know it’s a discriminatory measure against Lesbian and Gay couples, and therefore they shouldn’t sign it.
“We’re looking for volunteers to speak to voters about why they shouldn’t sign this petition,” Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, one of the major participants in the Equality for All coalition, told Zenger’s. Equality for All has chosen San Diego as one of five target areas for especially intense decline-to-sign work and held a meeting February 20 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center in Hillcrest to launch the local wing of the decline-to-sign drive. Over 50 people, many of them recognized local community leaders, packed the Center’s library for this meeting.
According to Sarah Reece, field organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) who has been on loan to Let California Ring — another wing of the campaign for marriage equality in California — for the last year and was just “reassigned and redeployed” to San Diego until the end of April, the backers of the anti-marriage initiative got authorization to circulate it in mid-January but didn’t start using paid circulators until the end of the month. Reece explained that the marriage equality opponents are using a two-pronged strategy to get their initiative on the ballot: holding “faith leader meetings” to get church pastors to urge their congregations to sign, and to mount a campaign with paid signature gatherers.
Paid signature gatherers are a regular fixture outside California supermarkets and shopping malls in the run-up to election deadlines. Often they’re hired by agencies who take on whoever will pay them — which means the people on the street are often carrying four, five or more petitions that range across the ideological map, “including animal rights, the environment and parental notification,” Kors explained. According to Reece, the initiative’s supporters already have over $650,000 to pay people to circulate it, including $250,000 from the Knights of Columbus. Kors named several other out-of-state organizations, including the Colorado-based Focus on the Family and the Virginia-based National Organization for Marriage, as major donors to the anti-marriage equality campaign.
“The petition is to redefine marriage in the state constitution as between one man and one woman,” Reece explained at the Center meeting. The version being circulated now is the milder of the two anti-marriage initiatives proposed by the radical Right: it would ban marriage for same-sex couples but would leave in place California’s system of domestic partnership, by which Gay and Lesbian couples can receive most of the same rights straight couples get through marriage. Reece called this “a double-edged sword; it doesn’t roll back domestic partnership rights, but it could be easier to get people to sign.”
Kors said he’s convinced marriage equality opponents focused on the milder initiative because “their polling, like ours and all the others, say Californians support treating Gay and Lesbian couples equally and would not support an initiative that would repeal domestic partnerships.” The last chance California voters had to vote on marriage rights for Gay and Lesbian couples was Proposition 22 in March 2000, which banned California from legally recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states or countries. It passed overwhelmingly, 61 to 39 percent — but Kors said the current polling on Californians’ views of whether to recognize same-sex marriage as such shows an almost even split.
“Californians have rapidly moved towards an awareness that it’s fair to allow Gay and Lesbian couples to marry,” Kors told Zenger’s. “That’s why they’re doing this now: to amend the state constitution to freeze the current discrimination in place while there are still a lot of people who support it.” Nearly every poll on the subject has shown that the younger people are, the more likely they are to support marriage equality for same-sex couples — hence the urgency on the part of marriage-equality opponents to get these initiatives before voters now while they still have a chance to pass.
The first phase of the “Decline to Sign” campaign is a so-called “Rapid Response Team,” aimed at getting people to report where the anti-marriage initiative is being circulated and what arguments the signature gatherers are using to persuade people to sign it. “Please ask what petitions people have when you see them,” an Equality California e-mail suggests. “In many instances, the signature gatherers will have more than one. It is O.K. to ask them, ‘What petitions do you have?’ Please ask them if they are paid or volunteer — that’s also O.K. to ask. Take samples of any literature they are offering.” The e-mail instructs volunteers to “not engage in debate’ with the signature gatherers, and to report the date, time and location where the anti-marriage petition was being circulated — along with whether the circulator was a volunteer or paid — by e-mail to email@example.com
The February 20 meeting at the Center was held to organize the second, and more aggressive, phase of “Decline to Sign”: actually sending teams to go where the anti-marriage petition is being circulated and urge people not to sign it. Both supporters and opponents are on a strict set of deadlines mandated by state law: the initiative’s backers have until April 19 to collect 670,000 valid signatures, and by the usual rule of thumb they’re probably shooting for at least 1.1 million to cover themselves in case signatures are invalidated. (The usual reasons signatures are thrown out include that the person is not a registered voter, the name or address is illegible or incorrect, or the signature blank is incomplete.)
The “Decline to Sign” team in San Diego will be organizing people to go out to shopping malls and other public and semi-public places every weekend until April 19, the deadline for the other side to qualify. Teams will be working in three- to four-hour shifts, organizing in the North County and East County areas where most of the signature gathering for this initiative is expected to be. Each shift will begin with a half-hour training session and end with a debriefing to collect information on what arguments the people asking for signatures for the anti-marriage initiative are using and what counter-arguments are most effective to get people not to sign.
“If we keep them off the ballot, it will be a big victory for us and the progressive community,” Reece told the activists at the Center. “Decline-to-sign campaigns almost never work, but they [the initiative sponsors] have a compressed time line. We have to get everyone mobilized in the next seven weeks. I believe it is our responsibility as good stewards to our community to do everything we can to stop this.”
To volunteer for the “Decline to Sign” campaign, please call the Center at (619) 692-2077, extension 206.
Speakers at the “Decline to Sign” meeting in San Diego February 20:
Caroline “Cara” Dessert, public policy coordinator, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, San Diego (San Diego is one of five focus points for the “Decline to Sign” campaign)
Sarah Reece, 6-year project director and field organizer for National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; has worked the last year as Let California Ring field coordinator and has been “reassigned and redeployed” as San Diego field coordinator until the end of April
Fernando Lopez, former regional organizer for Equality California and statewide coordinator for Marriage Equality U.S.A.
Amber Cook, COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere): San Francisco resident sent to work on the San Diego campaign
Kristi Shaw, Marriage Equality Project coordinator at the Center (for the past year) — worked on marriage for four years and in California for two years