The most surprising story in this year’s round of marriage amendments undoubtedly belongs to South Dakota (click here for other dispatches). Home to just 750,000 folks (89% white, 9% Native American; 91% Christian) — the Mount Rushmore State isn’t exactly known for being queer or blue. Bush carried the state in 2004 with 60% of the vote — the same year that voters ignominiously dumped Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in favor of John Thune (who neither believes in gay marriage or evolution). According to the LA Times, South Dakota has the smallest percentage of LGBT folks in the country — 10,000 queers or less than 1.5% of the population. (One activist joked to me, “we got 10,001 if you count Lincoln up there on the mountain”).
So how is it that the straightest state in the nation is poised to defeat “Amendment C,” a constitutional ban on gay marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and other “quasi-marital relationships”? (The latest poll shows the measure in a dead heat with 47% against and 46% in favor). The answer lies partly in another right-wing ballot initiative, “Referred Law 6,” or simply THE Abortion Ban, which the right-wing hopes to use to overturn Roe v. Wade. When all is said and done, over $4 million will have been spent campaigning for or against the ban. In a sparsely populated state with notoriously cheap radio and TV markets — that’s a whole lot of ads and door-knocking.
One side-effect of this enormous attention is that the marriage amendment has, if not exactly sailed under the radar, been spared a full frontal assault from the Christian right. According to Jon Hoadley, a native South Dakotan, former NGLTF staffer and campaign manager of South Dakotans Against Discrimination, the right has spent most of its time and resources on the abortion ban. When Hoadley scans the state for propaganda in favor of Amendment C, he mostly sees a bunch of lawn signs.
Hoadley also credits the “thoughtful voters of South Dakota” who have a “libertarian streak inside us.” “A lot of voters think that something like this is just unfair, that it’s not nice. Combine that with a hesitation to change our constitution.” Indeed, South Dakotans Against Discrimination have run a savvy campaign, appealing to local, good neighbor values (“Good neighbors don’t discriminate” reads one ad) and reaching out to religious leaders, business professionals and labor. The Dakotas Conference of the United Methodist Church and the South Dakota Diocese of the Episcopal Church have both spoken out against Amendment C. According to Hoadley, their stance has given South Dakotans Against Discrimination “a lot of leverage.” “It’s allowed us to approach religious voters and say that you have permission to vote against this,” he said.
South Dakota has 11 ballot initiatives this year. In addition to the marriage and abortion bans, South Dakotans will vote on Amendment E, which would hold jurors and judges personally liable for their verdicts. Hoadley says that these measures are “some of the most extreme, most untested ballot initiatives in the country.” “When you link all these things together, voters feel that this is all too far, too extreme.”