Election Results 2012: A Mixed Bag for Social Justice

Gay marriage makes huge strides nationwide while the death penalty still lives in California.

Stickers stating "I Voted" in several languages are affixed to a ballot intake machine at a polling station in California
Many Democrats won handily on the the 2012 ballots. Social justice faced a tougher climb. (Photo: Fred Prouser/Reuters)
Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

The cheers were deafening at Dodger Stadium last night (far louder than any actual Dodgers game the past few seasons) as prominent Los Angeles Democrats, including local city council leader and prospective mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti, gathered to celebrate the reelection of Barack Obama. The party got started early, with political, labor and social justice leaders sharing campaign battle stories over drinks and ballpark hotdogs.

As the din faded, however, and the cheers for President Obama’s reelection speech dimmed to a murmur, a more sober reality emerged.

Anti-death penalty advocates working for California’s Yes on 34 campaign—a measure that would replace capital punishment in California with a maximum sentence of life without parole—gathered in an isolated box overlooking the playing field, chatting quietly among themselves.

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Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, a prominent supporter of Prop. 34, sat off to the side, watching late California election results come in.

“I’m not inherently opposed to the death penalty, but it simply doesn’t work like it’s supposed to,” Garcetti told TakePart. “We’ve executed 13 people since 1978. And the political will doesn’t exist to fix it. This bill is the obvious solution.”

Passage wasn’t meant to be, however. Though yesterday’s election resoundingly sent Democrats across the country, from President Barack Obama on down, back to their jobs, California’s attempt to strike down the death penalty failed at the polls.

All in all, the 2012 national elections produced a mixed bag for social justice issues across the United States.

Major gains were made in the LGBT rights realm, as Maine became the first state to legalize marriage for gays and lesbians via public referendum. Washington followed soon thereafter. Maryland voters, meanwhile, gave their seal of approval at the voting booth to a gay marriage law passed earlier this year by the state legislature, while voters in Minnesota rejected a ballot attempt to restrict marriage equality in that state.

“Those who oppose the freedom to marry for committed couples are clearly on the wrong side of history,” Courage Campaign and LGBT activist Rick Jacobs says of the sweeping marriage equality results. “More and more voters are coming to know that gay people are our neighbors, our co-workers, our fellow parishioners, our family and our friends. It won't be long at all before all loving committed couples have the freedom to marry.”

Even in California, social justice advocates had something to cheer about. Proposition 35, which curbs the excesses of California’s Draconian “Three Strikes” sentencing law, passed by a wide margin. Californians will no longer be sentenced to life in prison for stealing a pizza.

But there were defeats. Massachusetts, by the thinnest of margins, failed to pass a law allowing doctors to assist terminally ill patients in ending their lives. Food justice advocates were dismayed by the loss of Proposition 37 in California, which would have mandated the labeling of genetically modified food. Creating labels for California’s massive market would likely have led to defacto labeling for the rest of the country. A huge last-minute ad blitz funded by big-agro companies like Monsanto, however, helped defeat the measure.

Then there was the defeat of Prop. 34, the death penalty killer, arguably the biggest blow for social justice advocates across America.

“This is the first time we’ve really ever had an intelligent discussion on the issue,” Garcetti said. “Both sides now readily admit this is not a deterrent. It’s simply a matter of vengeance. And I don’t think that’s something we can afford.”

Garcetti and other Prop. 34 supporters remain hopeful, seeing their issue in terms similar to the struggle to legalize gay marriage—a historical inevitability.

“With any great social-justice issue, there is an inevitability to the movement,” Prop. 34 organizer Daniel Tamm said. “As Shakespeare wrote, ‘it will come—the readiness is all.’ ”

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