When it comes to marriage, voters in this country aren’t all that kind to same-sex couples.
This year, voters in five states are likely to consider the subject including in Washington where a measure to repeal the state’s same-sex marriage law is expected to make the November ballot.
Backers of Washington’s law know they’re battling history as they try to make this the first state where gay marriage is embraced by the electorate.
“There is certainly a historical precedence against us,” said Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage. “But there’s been a dramatic shift in how the electorate nationally and in Washington views marriage equality. We’re intending to ride that new wave and make new history.”
Not so say opponents.
“You asked if Washington will be the first to buck the trend. Our answer to that is clearly no,” said Christopher Plante, deputy campaign manager for Preserve Marriage Washington, which is gathering signatures for Referendum 74. “Every time people have had a chance to vote on marriage, they’ve stood for defining it as between a man and a woman.”
Veteran pollster Stuart Elway of Seattle said the tolerance of Washingtonians will get tested by this question.
“Attitudes (toward same-sex marriage) are changing,” he said. “The bright line seems to be the word marriage. People will support civil unions and all the rights up to when you call it marriage. For whatever reason that term tilts the scale the other way. That’ll be the crux of it.”
Voters’ cold feet
Anti-gay marriage forces recorded their first ballot successes in 1998 in Alaska and Hawaii where voters inserted language in their state’s constitutions to make only marriages between a man and woman recognized.
Two years later, citizen initiatives of a similar vein passed in California, Nebraska and Nevada. And in 2004, voters amended constitutions in 13 states with wording to prevent same-sex couples from marrying.
All told, this subject has been on a ballot 34 times and only once, in Arizona in 2006, did voters reject a proposal aimed at prohibiting same-sex nuptials. Two years later, however, Arizonans did approve rewriting their state’s constitution to ensure marriage is only permissible if between a man and a woman.
And once, in Maine in 2009, voters repealed a state law allowing same-sex marriages. However, the issue returns in November when Maine voters consider a measure to let gay and lesbian couples wed.
Maine will be one of five battlegrounds for gay marriage in 2012.
In North Carolina next month and Minnesota in November, voters are considering constitutional amendments intended to ban gay marriage.
In Washington and Maryland, where laws legalizing same-sex marriage passed this year, the fight centers on attempts to repeal them. Both laws are on hold pending what happens in November.
Today, as a result of legislative or judicial action, gay and lesbian couples can marry legally in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont and the District of Columbia.
2012 could wind up a seminal year for gay marriage if voters endorse it in Washington, Maryland and Maine.
Evan Wolfson, founder and president of the Washington D.C.-based Freedom to Marry, said public opinion is shifting dramatically in favor of it as more people meet gay families and understand what marriage means to them.
Findings in several recent polls are giving the movement to allow gay marriage confidence to rack up victories this fall.
A March poll conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found same-sex marriage supported by a margin of 49 percent to 40 percent. Pew Research Center last year reported it favored 46 percent to 45 percent, noting it was the first time in 15 years of its polling that the public was evenly divided on this issue.
And in a survey of 938 people last year, the Washington Poll found 55 percent willing to uphold a same-sex marriage law in the state versus 38 percent pledging to repeal it.
Plante countered with results of a poll conducted in January by the National Organization of Marriage of Washington, D.C., one of the leading anti-gay marriage forces in the country. Its survey of Washington voters found 57 percent believed the state did not need a law allowing same-sex marriages and 52 percent believed marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
“When you ask the question properly, people say enough is enough, don’t mess with marriage,” said Plante, who is a NOM employee on loan to Preserve Marriage Washington for the duration of the campaign.
Polling alone isn’t the only reason gay marriage supporters are quietly hopeful in Washington.
The political landscape in this state differs in other ways from nearly every other state in which voters weighed in on the matter of marriage.
First, Washington lawmakers chose to pursue an expansion of gay rights in small steps rather than go for the big prize of marriage right away. In the past six years, the Legislature enacted laws banning discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation, enabled same-sex couples to register with the state as domestic partners and expanded the rights and responsibilities for those relationships.
The success of this incremental approach came in 2009 following passage of the so-called “everything but marriage” law which treated domestic partnerships the same as married heterosexual couples under state law with one exception — they could not marry.
Opponents tried to repeal it with Referendum 71 but failed. This was the first time voters anywhere in the country upheld legal recognition for the relationships of same-sex couples.
“We’re in a different place than any other state in the country because we’ve been having that conversation for the better part of a decade,” Silk said. “Opponents have a very good playbook. We’re still the underdogs.”
Second, religious conservatives are dwindling in number and less influential than a few years ago. And Washington is home to a socially moderate strain of Republicans, especially in the vote-rich region of the Puget Sound; a handful of GOP lawmakers backed the new law.
Finally, the question voters might face in November is much different than what’s on the ballot in North Carolina and Minnesota. In those states, the issue is whether to write a ban on same-sex marriage into their state’s constitution.
In Washington, voters would be asked if they want to approve or reject a law passed by the Legislature and governor. This law is described so there’s no hiding the fact it legalizes gay marriage. It also spells out how religious leaders don’t have to condone or conduct marriages of same-sex couples.
The ballot language doesn’t specifically say the law changes the state’s definition of marriage though Plante said that’s what it does and that’s what voters need to be told.
Marriage goes from being a civil contract between a man and a woman to a civil contract between any two people, he said.
“We have our work cut out for us,” he said. “We’re confident people of Washington will understand by election time that R-74 is about the definition of marriage.”
Wolfson is quick to rebut that argument.
“This is not about defining marriage. This is about ending an exclusion from marriage for gay couples,” he said. “Marriage is still going to be marriage just more people are going to be able to do it.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org