Finding 7: The Election Results Make It Look Closer Than It Was

Wrong-way Voting Basics 

·         The definition: wrong-way voting is when a person casts a vote that contradicts his or her beliefs. Their vote is the opposite of their intention. 

·         How to measure it: Wrong-way voting on Prop 8 is measurable thanks to a smart   decision by Lake Research. After asking the horse race question to find out how each voter was planning to vote (Yes or No on 8), Lake asked in plain language whether each voter wanted to eliminate marriage for gay and lesbian couples or retain it.

For a detailed explanation of the methodology and the calculations that allowed this report to quantify wrong-way voting, see Appendix K.

The election looked close, but Prop 8 would have passed 54% to 46% if all voters had correctly understood how to vote in accordance with their opinion on the issue.

Many voters who intended to ban marriage for same-sex couples voted no on Prop 8 even though a no vote actually preserved marriage for same-sex couples. These wrong-way voters—confused voters—cast votes against their intention.

·         There were wrong-way voters on both sides. In total, 876,987 voters who wanted to eliminate gay marriage cast no votes while 651,757 voters trying to keep gay marriage voted yes. Taking all wrong-way votes into account, No on 8 was the net beneficiary by approximately 400,000 votes.

·         If all California voters had voted in accordance with their views, Prop 8 would have passed by more than 1 million votes, 54% to 46%. See Appendix K for all the details on how these numbers were calculated.

·         The official election result for Prop 8 therefore understates the amount of work we have to do to win a future election. In any future ballot measure on marriage we will need either to turn out 1,000,000 more supporters, change the minds of 500,000 who voted against us, or some combination of the two.

·         Academics Lewis and Gossett corroborate this report’s findings on wrong-way voting and also provide independent analysis of why we lost on Prop 8. Their research deserves more attention than it has received.


Wrong-Way Voting on Prop 8 made the California electorate appear more evenly divided on the issue of same-sex marriage than it really was.

In the wake of Prop 8, many members of the LGBT community understandably wanted to reverse it. Discussion began about whether to go back to the ballot on the issue in 2010 or 2012.

But the hope that we could go back quickly and prevail relied on some assumptions and understandings that are not supported by the data. The reasoning that we now know does not hold up is this: the last election seemed close, so if the next campaign just avoided the errors of the No on 8 campaign, then we could win a future ballot measure relatively easily.

The data on wrong-way voting makes this a much less persuasive analysis.

The reason we cannot expect wrong-way voting to help us similarly in any future ballot campaign is that in the next campaign there will be much less wrong-way voting. Voters will need to vote Yes in favor of same-sex marriage, and No to oppose it. “No” will mean No marriage for same-sex couples, and “Yes” will mean Yes, equal marriage rights. Many more voters will intuitively grasp how to express their opinion. As a result, the LGBT community and allies have a higher hill to climb because we will not benefit from wrong-way voting as we did in Prop 8.

Charts 29 & 30: Yes on 8's Supporters and the Relatively Constant Number of Anti-Same-Sex Marriage Wrong-Way Voters; Yes on 8's Supporters and the Declining Number of Pro-Same-Sex Marriage Wrong-Way Voters

What Wrong-Way Voting Means for Future Same-Sex Marriage Campaigns in California

We go into a future election 720,000 to 1,000,000 votes behind.

Specifically, if we’re on the ballot during a high-stimulus, high-turnout presidential election as we were in 2008, we will start out 1,000,000 votes behind.

If we’re on the ballot in a nonpresidential year, we will start out 720,000 to 740,000 votes behind. The range reflects the possibility of lower or higher ballot drop-off (more or fewer voters voting on our issue).

In a presidential election year, ballot drop-off is typically highest since a larger than usual number of people vote only on the single most visible contest, the presidential election. But voter drop-off has in many same-sex marriage ballot measure elections been uncommonly low due to high public awareness of and opinion about the issue. See Appendix B for the method by which this report calculated votes to win for future campaigns in both presidential and nonpresidential years.

The votes-to-win calculations are rough estimates. When it comes time that we actually are on the ballot, we may experience some benefit from younger people entering the California electorate, though it may be more or less offset by in-migration to California from voters less predisposed to support us. But the gist is this: the pro-LGBT side will be ready to return to the ballot and to win only by making real progress toward one or both of those goals.

Will we be ready to go back to the ballot in 2012?

Since the gap we have to bridge is wider than most in the LGBT community have known, it is possible that it will take longer to return to the ballot and win than some believed when 2010 and 2012 were the only options given serious consideration.

Professors Greg Lewis and Charles Gossett raised this idea explicitly in the paper they presented at the 2009 American Political Science Association conference, “Why Did Californians Pass Proposition 8?” Lewis and Gossett began their research to investigate why the public polls by Field and the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) overstated support for No on 8 throughout the campaign. They discovered that wrong-way voting caused much of the poll error; specifically that “substantial numbers of people [told] pollsters they opposed Proposition 8 even though they did not favor same-sex marriage” and that this voter confusion best explained why the Field and PPIC polls overstated No on 8’s support.

This is strong corroboration for the findings in this report on wrong-way voting, since the two research projects independently analyzed completely different data sets. Lewis and Gossett looked primarily at the Field and PPIC polling data; the Mentoring Project examined the Lake Research and Binder Associates data.

The Lewis and Gossett findings also partially explain why the Lake Research polling results differ so remarkably from the well-known, highly regarded public polls as noted in Finding 6. Lewis and Gossett discovered why the public polls had the race so wrong for so long: wrong-way voters inflated the apparent support for No on 8 in the Field and PPIC polls. More than any other pollster, Lake Research accounted for wrong-way voting; and more than any other pollster, Lake’s numbers, though consistently on the pessimistic side, got most of it right.

From Lake’s first benchmark poll in May through the tracking polls it ran through October, Lake did the most frequent and consistent polling, making its data the most comprehensive and therefore the most useful not only for this report but also for anyone attempting to chart trends in the upticks and downticks faced by No on 8. Lake also asked smarter questions, such as the “be clear” follow-up to the horse race question. On this front, Lake raised the bar for all polling on this issue. Lake was also the only pollster to correctly predict the ultimate outcome.

In summarizing the larger implications of their findings, Lewis and Gossett acknowledged that they were “trying to determine whether the [public] Proposition 8 polls were ‘wrong,’ or whether a smarter ‘No on 8’ campaign could have succeeded. We conclude that Proposition 8 opponents did a little better than they should have and that the 48-52 loss overstates current support for same-sex marriage.”

After examining not only wrong-way voting but also the effects of cohort replacement (as younger people become voters and older voters die off), immigration, and other trends, Lewis and Gossett predicted how long it will take before efforts to overturn Prop 8 have a reasonable chance to succeed. They concluded that in California, “51% support for same-sex marriage is still about five years away,” and that “prospects of passing an initiative overturning Proposition 8 within five years appear limited.” That would suggest 2014, since they were writing in 2009.

Lewis and Gossett subsequently wrote a second shorter version of their paper in 2009 that focused on fewer topics and omitted the discussion about when to go back to the ballot. The 2009 version is available online at, and the 2008 version at

The Lewis and Gossett conclusions are provocative, but the surest definitive point of both their wrong-way voting analysis and that of this report is the clarity we now have about the scale of the work to do. Overturning Prop 8 at the ballot box will require a future campaign to overcome a 1,000,000-vote deficit (in a presidential year) or 720,000 to 740,000 in a nonpresidential year.

The data are unable to tell us when that work will be completed. That decision is up to us. The timetable for success depends, at least in part, on how seriously and effectively the LGBT community and our allies gain the insight into how to get some of those who voted against us to reconsider, and how to preempt or counter the appeal to anti-gay prejudice the other side is sure to dust off and roll out again in the next campaign.

See Recommendations 1, 2 and 3 for a fuller discussion of the work we need to do to get ready, and when we need to do it.

For additional findings on wrong-way voting, and a full discussion of how this report reached its conclusions on wrong-way voting, see Appendix K.