A long night of uncertainty in downtown St. Paul suddenly turned exuberant shortly after 1: 30 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
That’s when a few dozen supporters of Our Vote Our Future, the main group opposing an amendment requiring voters to produce photo identification at the polls, began boisterously celebrating their stunning victory, which news organizations had declared moments earlier. Just a few weeks ago, the ballot measure appeared likely to be approved by double digits. Instead it fell nearly 4 percentage points short of the 50 percent-plus required for passage.
“Minnesota, we did it,” said Luchelle Stevens, campaign manager for Our Vote Our Future, when she appeared on stage at the RiverCentre. “We did what everyone said was impossible.”
As Stevens was wrapping up her speech, cheers began erupting from the other end of the St. Paul RiverCentre, where opponents of the proposed amendment banning gay marriage were gathered by the hundreds. Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, the main group opposing the gay marriage amendment, took to the podium surrounded by supporters in their trademark orange and blue shirts.
“Tonight Minnesota proved that love is bigger than government,” Carlbom told the crowd. “This is truly a historic night.… Minnesota has become the first state in the nation to beat back a freedom-limiting amendment like this. Minnesota is now the first state in our country to have faced this question and said no.”
Tense but hopeful
The frenetic early-morning celebrations capped an historic Election Day in which voters defeated two amendments that were a hallmark of the GOP-controlled Legislature that swarmed to victory two years ago on a national wave.
Throughout the evening, the mood at RiverCentre had hovered between tension and exultation as election returns consistently showed both amendments falling short of the threshold required for passage. Lines for beer and wine ran several dozen individuals deep. The sound system pumped out a constant stream of up-tempo songs. Speakers continuously expressed optimism about defeating the amendments throughout the night.
“The time has come,” U.S. Sen. Al Franken told the crowd gathered in hopes of defeating the marriage amendment. “We know we’re going to have equality in marriage across this country.”
But not everyone in the crowd was confident that the marriage referendum would be defeated. Whittier Strong, who performed with the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus at the gathering, expressed pessimism about how the evening would turn out. “To be perfectly honest, I’m a cynic by nature,” Strong said, before any significant results had been released. “I hope I’m surprised. I hope that I’m wrong.”
The gay marriage referendum was the costliest ballot measure in state history. The two sides spent at least $17 million combined. But opponents of the marriage ban, channeling their efforts through Minnesotans United for All Families, raised more than three times as much as their rivals. The group put together a broad-based campaign that included high-profile Republicans and independents. Its final television spot featured a dramatic speech on the House floor from GOP Rep. John Kriesel, a veteran of the Iraq War, expressing his opposition to the gay marriage amendment.
After the House voted in May of last year to put the gay marriage amendment on the ballot, DFL Sen. Scott Dibble stood outside the chamber and vowed to vigorously fight the measure. On Tuesday evening he expressed admiration for the campaign that ensued. “That campaign is exactly what we envisioned on the steps of the House chamber that night,” said Dibble, who is openly gay, “which is rolling out into every corner of Minnesota and showing ourselves for who we are as LGBT people, as loving committed couples, and drawing together an incredible, historic, unprecedented coalition, the likes of which Minnesota has never seen.… So exactly what we envisioned that night is exactly what’s happened. I think we’re writing the book on how to do broad-based, coalition campaigns like this.”
Polling in recent weeks had shown the gay marriage measure likely headed for a slim defeat. Surveys released in the closing days showed support for the amendment falling short of 50 percent. But that didn’t necessarily suggest that the ballot measure was expected to fail: In other states across the country that have voted on the issue, pre-election polling has consistently underestimated support for gay marriage bans.
Minnesota was among four states that held referendums on gay marriage on Tuesday. The proponents of same-sex nuptials also prevailed in Maine, Maryland and Washington, breaking a decade-plus losing streak for their side and suggesting that the tide is changing nationally on the issue.
Surprise victory for voter ID opponents
The photo ID campaign was a much more muted and less-expensive affair. The main group supporting the initiative, Protect My Vote, raised just $1.5 million, with the bulk of that coming from conservative mega-donors Robert and Joan Cummins. The group struggled to put together a credible campaign to solidify public support for the measure.
Opponents of the photo ID measure, by contrast, assembled a broad coalition of institutional partners — including TakeAction Minnesota, the Minnesota AARP, the Minnesota AFL/CIO and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits – under the umbrella of Our Vote Our Future. The group raised $2.5 million, but much of that was generated through in-kind donations of staff time.
The ballot measure initially looked like it would be adopted by an overwhelming margin. A poll last year by the Star Tribune found support for requiring voters to show photo ID at 80 percent. Even within weeks of Election Day, polls were continuing to suggest that the measure would pass by double digits. But in the final days of the campaign, support for the ballot initiative weakened dramatically.
Our Vote Our Future put together a frenetic final drive to defeat the measure. On the final evening before voters went to the polls, the organization had 150 volunteers at four different locations making 20,000 calls an hour, according to Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, which spearheaded the coalition. “When this polled at 80 percent a year and a half ago, we decided to jump in with both feet,” McGrath said on Tuesday night. “And I think that was because, like it or not, there’s no constituency for democracy. Democracy is everyone’s issue, so it’s no one’s issue. So we are uniquely positioned to try to figure out how to connect democracy to all the issues people do care about.”
Ultimately that institutional muscle proved decisive in defeating the amendment. “A lot of it was about softening up already soft support,” McGrath said. “Once people started running programs – once we convinced ourselves we should be running programs, it’s worth a shot – this broad coalition could reach scale very quickly.”
More battles ahead
The issues of voter ID and gay marriage are not likely to recede completely in the coming months. The DFL takeover of the Legislature almost certainly means that proponents of the former will find it difficult to regain traction on the issue. But there remains a committed group of conservative activists who will continue to agitate about the need for a photo ID requirement.
On the gay marriage front, defeat of the amendment likely means a renewed legislative push to legalize same-sex unions. Previous efforts to adopt such legislation have garnered tepid support, but as the results on Tuesday showed, public opinion is evolving rapidly on the issue.
In addressing supporters on Wednesday morning, Carlbom vowed to continue pushing the issue. “This conversation does not end tonight,” he said. “It’s only just begun.”