With the vote on Marriage Equality only a week away, I thought I’d write a post about what it’s like canvassing for a Yes vote. I’ve been out most nights knocking on the doors of South Dublin encouraging people to support marriage equality. If you support marriage equality, then I would highly recommend that you come along too, canvassing is really easy and quite fun too. You can find your local group and more advice on how to canvass here.
Canvassing is pretty much how elections in Ireland are won. We have quite strict campaign finance laws (compared to America) and nothing remotely political is allowed to be advertised on TV. Due to the McKenna ruling, all broadcasts must equally represent both sides and so TV debates are often stalemates. That means that the primary way of reaching voters is through social media (for younger voters), posters and door-to-door canvassing. Canvassing is particularly effective because it reaches people that social media misses and because Irish people respond strongly to personal contact in politics.
If you have never gone canvassing or are unsure about going, let me tell you that it’s really easy. You’re paired off with an experienced canvasser until you feel comfortable. There is no speech or slogan that we use, simply apologise for disturbing them, hand them a leaflet and ask if they’ve made up their mind yet. You can usually tell which way someone is leaning from this and whether they’re interested in hearing more. Lots of people’s instinct is simply to take a leaflet and close the close or they simply aren’t interested in politics, but you almost never have anyone being rude to you.
The best part of the canvassing is the people. I didn’t know anyone before I started canvassing, but everyone is super friendly and welcoming, making canvassing as much a fun social activity as a serious political action. The group is overwhelming composed of young people, putting to bed the myth that young people don’t care about politics or society. Irish politics may be dominated by middle aged men, but canvassing is full of young men and women (in roughly equal proportions). I’ve made a lot of friends and as strange as it sounds I’ll be a bit sad when it’s over.
At the start of the campaign we had 10-30 people showing up each night and I thought that people might fade away or get tired, but the exact opposite has happened and every night this week we’ve had around 80 people out. There was a noticeable jump in numbers canvassing when the No side unveiled their posters. It seems that instead of winning votes, they merely mobilised the Yes side. As far as I can tell, the No side isn’t even trying to canvass, relying instead on posters and leaflets.
You meet all sorts while canvassing. There are little old grannies who won’t open the door to you and you have shout through the door that you’re not going to rob them, you’re only canvassing for a Yes vote. I had one middle aged woman shout through a door that she wasn’t allowed open it (?). I’ve had people come rushing to the door ready to start roaring, only to calm down when they see I’m on the Yes side. I’ve had more than one regret that I wasn’t a No canvasser so they could give me a piece of their mind. I usually knock on the doors because you usually can’t tell if doorbells are working, but I had one man tell me not to knock with my fist, because only the Gardaí do that.
There is a very strong age divide, as every No voter that I’ve met was over 50 and pretty much everyone under 40 was a Yes voter. There is also a rural-urban divide, but interestingly, no class divide. The only difference I’ve seen is that working class people will spend longer talking to you and tell you their mind, whereas middle class people are quicker to close the door.
I’ve also had a few bizarre experiences with No voters. I had one very polite old man calmly tell me that a Yes vote would “turn humanity upside down” and “end civilisation as we know it”. Another less friendly man told me that “women shouldn’t be used as vessels for homosexuals”. I have no idea what that has to do with the referendum or what it even means. Another man gave a huge rant to a guy I was canvassing with (who happens to be gay) about how a Yes vote would lead to Sodom and Gomorrah all over again, it would destroy the fabric of society, it was immoral and unnatural and to top it all off, the rainbow was not the symbol of LGBT rights, but the symbol of God’s promise not to exterminate humanity like he did in the flood.
The most bizarre was an African man who was shocked and asked me if “you want me to vote yes to the gay?” While I tried to explain that marriage, not homosexuality, was the issue and people would still be gay regardless of the outcome of the referendum, he ranted on how it was against the Bible, against God and what he thought was killer point, “If you’re parents were gay, you wouldn’t have been born!” True, but completely irrelevant. To be honest, I don’t take people like that too seriously and just laugh them off.
While the No voters stick stronger in your memory, I’ve had a huge wave of Yes supporters too. In fact, every night I’ve been canvassing, I’ve met more Yes supporters than No’s. It’s always wonderful when you meet enthusiastic welcome on the doorstep and are told the whole house is voting Yes. I’ve had grateful lesbian couples and many houses where I was told there’s no need to say anything, they were definite Yes voters. Young people in particular are very enthusiastic and tell everyone they know to vote yes. I had one old lady shake her and ask why did we have to have a referendum, if two people love each other and want to get married, why not just let them?
Probably the most positive experience so far was when I was canvassing the flats in the Dublin inner city. As we approached the flats, we saw a gang of teenagers standing outside. We have had nasty things shouted at us (especially at the female canvassers) so I was a bit wary when they asked if any of us were gay (I’m not but the people I was canvassing with were). To my surprise, they were incredibly enthusiastic, one girl telling us her brother was gay and they all crowded around us looking for badges. The badges have proven to be extremely popular and in high demand, and I heard that secondary schools are full of students too young to vote wearing them.
One of the most noticeable features of the referendum is the very different tone of each side. The Yes side is focusing on love and equality and in fact it’s the most positive campaign I have ever been involved with. The core message always emphasised is that gay and lesbian people just want to have the same rights as everyone else. Yes campaigners have been spreading messages from gay and lesbian people about how they hope they will be allowed to marry the people they love. If you read one story about the referendum, make sure it’s this one from Ursula Halligan. The evidence shows that no harm comes to children or society as a result of marriage equality. It’s amazing that all sections of society are uniting around a Yes vote, with all political parties, unions, business groups, lawyers, teachers, doctors and students giving a positive and hopeful message. Even the people in the No posters are voting Yes!
In contrast the No side has been the most negative campaigns I’ve ever seen (though I am too young for the divorce and abortion referenda). They have talked about everything except marriage in the debate (probably because they know that almost everyone has no problem with two men or women marrying) and instead talked about irrelevant topics like adoption and surrogacy, which will be completely unaffected by the referendum, regardless of the outcome. The Referendum Commission basically debunked their arguments in this article, explaining that marriage is not being redefined (marriage is not defined in the constitution), civil partnership is not the same as marriage, adoption is not affected (the chair of the Adoption Authority of Ireland confirmed this), surrogacy has nothing to do with the referendum, there is no legal right to a mother and father (this was purely invented as a slogan for the referendum). The main children’s charities have all endorsed a Yes vote and said that marriage equality will not harm children at all.
As the campaign goes on, the No side is getting more desperate and therefore more hysterical and paranoid. In every campaign, posters go missing and rude things are said, yet the No side are acting as if they are a persecuted minority under attack from a dictatorship. Every slight issue leads to hysterical warnings about the end of Irish democracy, yet they are completely silent whenever a Yes poster goes missing or a Yes canvasser is insulted. When a single Garda helped register students to vote, this was taken to mean that the police were forcing everyone to vote Yes (even though Gardaí have registered people at No events). No campaigners are making ridiculous claims that they are being silenced, despite the fact that they are on TV and in the newspapers every night, get as much publicity as the Yes side and have full protection of the law and rights to vote.
The No side is bending over backwards to deny that they are homophobic (and the Iona Institute will sue anyone who calls them so, which makes their claims of being silenced all the more ironic), yet it’s hard to argue that gay and lesbian couples should have less rights without straying into homophobia. There is a strong undercurrent in the No campaign that gay couples just simply aren’t as good as straight couples, especially at raising children. Although they deny it, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the posters treat gay couples as inferior to straight couples and as some danger that children must be protected from. Although many like to think of Ireland as a modern society, homophobia has not disappeared and they still are plenty who think (like the Catholic Church) that homosexuality is immoral. They don’t write articles or use Twitter, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
What’s interesting is that the “persecution” that the No side claims to be suffering from, is what LGBT people go through every day. If the No side doesn’t like the insults they get, this is only a drop in the ocean compared to the homophobic abuse LGBT people get all their life. The unease that some people feel about admitting they’re a No voter is nothing compared to the hardship of telling people you’re gay. When people complain about businesses suffering by refusing to serve gay couples, this is nothing compared to all the people who lost their job because of their sexuality. I know teachers who are scared about what will happen if their Church run school finds out that they are gay. A few No posters been torn down is no comparison with the fact that many people believe the Bible that homosexuality is an abomination that should be criminalised (if not punished by death). No campaigners may think that they are martyrs carrying a cross, but they can put it down in a week, LGBT people will have to suffer far worse for the rest of their lives.