OLYMPIA — Washington voters on Tuesday were narrowly affirming a controversial law giving same-sex couples all the rights and benefits of married couples with the exception of marriage.
Just over 51 percent of voters were approving Referendum 71 in the initial night of ballot counting. Statewide, 506,936 people cast ballots to approve and 484,567 to reject.
Majorities of voters in Snohomish and Island counties supported the measure. In Snohomish County, the referendum was winning approval 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent while in Island County the margin was 53 percent to 47 percent.
“I’m pretty proud of Washington tonight for taking a stand for equality,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, at the Approve 71 election night party in Seattle.
“As long as we win by one vote I’m glad to see 12,000 people in domestic partnerships will continue to receive the protections the Legislature approved,” he said.
Those seeking rejection of Referendum 71 weren’t conceding Tuesday.
“I think we’ve got a shot. We’re working this thing down to where victory is in sight,” said Gary Randall of the Faith and Freedom Network, one of the leading opponents of the new law.
Only 10 of 39 counties were backing the referendum, aided immensely by the one-sided total in King County.
Pierce County was the largest county in which a majority rejected the referendum in Tuesday night tallies.
“We’ve made strong progress in the state on issues of equality, but the work is not done,” Liias said.
People in the Protect Marriage Washington campaign against the referendum gathered for election night festivities behind closed doors at the Holiday Inn in Everett.
Larry Stickney of Protect Marriage Washington said there were concerns about the safety and privacy of those attending the party. He said threats against himself and other leaders of the group have been posted online in the past.
More recently, the person who made those online threats posted a newspaper photo of girls participating in a reject R-71 rally in southwest Washington, Stickney said.
About 200 people attended Tuesday night and there were no incidents, Stickney said.
Referendum 71 marked the first major ballot box test of gay rights legislation since the 1998 passage of the Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
It asked voters to approve or reject the law signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire earlier this year that granted state-registered domestic partners all the rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples under state law.
Most of the state’s 6,284 domestic partnerships are same-sex couples. This law was dubbed the “everything but marriage” law because it would make same-sex couples legally indistinguishable from married couples under state law. The law also applies to heterosexual couples in which at least one partner is 62 years or older.
The law was supposed to take effect July 26 but has been on hold pending the outcome of the election.
Protect Marriage Washington, a coalition of conservative social and religious groups, gathered the signatures to put the referendum on the ballot.
When the state legalized domestic partnerships in 2007, it gave state registered partners a handful of rights such as the ability to visit a partner in the hospital. Last year, lawmakers expanded that law to give domestic partners standing in legal actions such as probate and trusts, community property and guardianship.
The 2009 law targeted by the referendum extended rights for domestic partners into every remaining law pertaining to married couples including the right to use sick leave to care for a domestic partner, and rights related to adoption, child custody and child support.
Opponents said the new law effectively legalized same-sex marriage. While admitting it did not overturn the 1998 law outright, they said it laid the legal ground work for its demise.
The Approve 71 campaign raised $2.1 million while a trio of groups urging voters to reject the measure had amassed nearly $600,000. The Approve 71 campaign used a television ad campaign to try to show how the law would assist gay and lesbian families as well as senior heterosexual couples.
“If this passes, the voters are sending a very strong message to lawmakers to continue your work to ensure that all Washingtonians are treated equally,” said Josh Friedes, the campaign’s manager.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.