Rights, Referenda, and Reasons

Good questions can take a long time to answer.

Earlier this month in a special election Houston voters decisively rejected a city ordinance protecting citizens from discrimination. The issue, framed as liberal versus conservative conflict, attracted national attention. Sports figures, religious leaders, actors, and even the White House weighed in. Supporters argued that the law would protect people from illegal discrimination. Opponents argued that it was part of the mayor’s gay agenda (Annise Parker, Houston’s mayor, is openly lesbian). Further, opponents claimed that the ordinance would allow men to enter women’s public bathrooms, an issue that raised fears with many voters.

Houston City Hall
Houston City Hall

I found it eerily familiar, raising questions that have intrigued me for quite some time. Bear with me, please, this is a long story.

In 1984, I studied at Rice University and lived in Houston. It is a fascinating and complex city. I worked hard to make sense of its defiance of simple generalizations. The mayor at the time, Kathy Whitmire, was progressive and popular. The LGBT community was active. So, too, were traditional Texas conservatives. Blunt sexism and discrimination were common, and yet, in certain Houston neighborhoods, an easy acceptance of quirky and counter-cultural behavior was the norm. The conflicting trends came into sharp focus when the Houston City Council considered a proposal prohibiting the city from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Vocal opposition quickly materialized over the summer. By the fall, an all-out political campaign was underway with a special election called for January of 1985.

I decided to try to make sense of the issue by writing about it for The Thresher, Rice’s student newspaper. I interviewed proponents from both sides as well as journalists and political experts. My article is probably strongest on explaining the conflict’s origins. I was less successful in giving clarity to what the election meant for the city.

The anti-proposition organizations campaigned that the changes would advance a “gay” agenda. They stressed that citizen’s everyday rights would be curtailed in deference to the wants of a “radical” deviant group. The promoted maintaining traditional values and rights. Groups advocating the propositions advanced arguments about equity and progressive values. The propositions were overwhelmingly rejected by a four-to-one ratio. The scope of the proposals’ defeat surprised everyone.

Analysis of the election was that voter turnout was the deciding factor. Those on the left could not be persuaded to get out and vote in enough numbers to counteract the thousands who wanted to see the propositions rejected. The anti-proposition groups had success mobilizing religious groups. The explanation made sense to me, but it was also thin. In every election, getting people energized enough to get to the ballot is always key. Why were the anti-proposition leaders so much more effective in getting citizens to vote?

The question stayed with me through my graduate studies in American history. I raised it while teaching American history, particularly when covering the expansion of rights. Looking at US history, when a group’s rights were validated, it consistently came from a branch of the government and rarely from voters directly. The courts granted rights. Executives insured rights. Legislatures passed laws promising rights. But voters, in referenda, time and time again rejected opportunities to share rights and privileges with other groups. The matter was critical in the progressive era, when reformers sought to give more rights to the voters through democratic reforms like the referendum, recall and initiative.

An outstanding example of the complicated relationship between democracy and rights is the long march for women to get the vote. When men were given opportunities at the ballot box to share voting rights with women, they almost always said “no.” (Kansas in 1867; Michigan in 1874; Rhode Island in 1887; New Hampshire in 1902). Colorado was the first state to give women voting rights through a referendum. In Oregon in 1912, the fifth time the issue was before the voters, men finally agreed to give women voting rights.

Why are voters reluctant to share rights? What is it about these campaigns that gets people so concerned and brings out the anti-vote?

I recently finished Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving: The Origins of Behavioral Economics, an interesting and provocative book. It also made me think that we might be on our way to an answer to this question that I have been pondering for so long. This is only a supposition, but one that I hope that we will see social scientists explore in future studies.

The reason for the electoral turnout might stem from what psychologists and behavioral economists call the “endowment effect.” This is a well-established fundamental aspect of human behavior. In brief, the endowment effect is the extent that people give greater value to what they have or what they perceive that they have over something of equal value they do not have. It is not rational from a pure economic point of view. It also seems to be hard-wired into most people.

Social scientists have experimented with the endowment effect in different ways. They see it as essential to understanding how and why humans trade. It helps to explain loss-aversion, which from a pure economic standpoint, is not efficient and does not maximize value. Most people are unwilling and unlikely to trade what they own for something of equal or greater value. We fear loss disproportionately to when see an opportunity for gain. Endowment effects differ across situations. They can be measured, however, and they are real.

I believe that an appreciation of the endowment effect can be critical to understanding the effectiveness of political campaigns. Referenda – the direct querying of voters on an individual issue – provides casebook studies. Do voters see the issue as one of potential gain or loss?

In both Houston elections thirty years apart, “pro” campaigners struggled to get Houstonians to get out to vote for measures that might or might not provide them with benefit. While many might believe that anti-discrimination measures could be the morally right thing to support, they are neither tangible or immediate. There is no compelling argument to be made, save that the non-passage of these measures might cause harm and that they are for a generalized good.

In contrast, the “anti” campaigns in both elections stressed an immediate loss of rights and liberties should the measures be adopted. Both campaigns over the years emphasized that “normal” life would be curtailed. In the 2015 election, anti-campaigners repeatedly stated that voting no would keep men out of women’s restrooms. They emphasized protection of the status quo. The successful anti campaigns made clear that their side was about avoiding loss.

Intriguing, isn’t it? I greatly enjoy my current job,  and I am grateful for my training is an historian. That said, were I to switch careers, I would be very tempted to spend a great deal of time learning more about behavioral economics.

David Potash

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