Proposition 8: How Wording Made All the Difference

In an upsetting - but expected ruling - the CA Supreme Court voted to uphold Proposition 8, which reads:

Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Wording like this would have been torn to shreds by my high school debate team (which once, rather infamously, defined Huckleberry Finn, in the statement "Episcopal Academy should ban Huckleberry Finn," as the character himself.  The team then argued that to ban a character, but not the book itself, is absurd.  They nearly won.).  But I disgress...

Proposition 8 was awkwardly written, and intentionally so.  Consider some intepretations:
  • Only (marriage between a man and a woman) is valid or recognized in California.  Nothing else - nothing at all - is valid.
  • (Only marriage) between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.  Of all legal or other agreements between a man and a woman, marriage is the only one that's valid.
  • [No parenthetical equivalent] Pair "only" with "a man and a woman" to imply that no other marriages are valid.  This says nothing about other, non-marriage contracts.
Proposition 8 wants you, of course, to select the third option.  But should we?  Consider an analogy: "Only boys between the ages of 10 and 15 can apply."  
Common sense suggests that we parse the sentence as "Only (boys between the ages of 10 and 15) can apply."  Thus, no girls allowed.  Proposition 8, however, would have us pair "only" with "between the ages of 10 and 15" to imply that no other boys are able to apply.  This says nothing about other, non-boy applicants.  Girls are allowed, then?

Given the awkward, ambiguous wording, why didn't Proposition 8 say what it meant?  Why wasn't it written as "ban same-sex marriage" or "marriages between same-sex couples are not valid or recognized."?  Because wording matters.

Proposition 8 almost certainly would not have passed had it said what it meant: ban same-sex marriage.

From National Organization for Marriage's talking points:
Language to avoid at all costs: "Ban same-sex marriage." Our base loves this wording. So do supporters of SSM. They know it causes us to lose about ten percentage points in polls. Don’t use it. Say we’re against “redefining marriage” or in favor or “marriage as the union of husband and wife” NEVER “banning same-sex marriage.”

52% of voters voted for Proposition 8; by NOM's own admission, only 42% would have voted for it had it been clearly written.  It should have been a resounding failure, not a narrow success.

So, please, do not let anyone tell you that "the people of California have spoken."  First, the voters spoke, not the people (voters do not accurately represent the people).  Second, the voters voted to support Prop 8, not to ban same-sex marriage.  There's a big difference - a 10 percentage point difference.

Wording matters.  It made all the difference in passing Proposition 8.