June 7, 2012
By Jacob Combs
The Washington state law passed earlier this year to bring marriage equality to the state is officially on hold now that opponents of the measure have submitted a raft of signatures to the Secretary of State seeking to put the issue on the November ballot. The ballot measure, known as Referendum 74, would ask Washington voters to uphold or overturn the legislature’s law allowing same-sex couples to wed in the state while protecting the religious freedoms of places of worship who do not recognize marriage equality. The proponents of Referendum 74 told reporters that they had collected 241,000 signatures, about twice as many as the 120,577 required by law.
Before the ballot initiative becomes official, the Secretary of State will have to verify the accuracy of the signatures, but it is extremely likely the proponents will have required the requisite number even if a chunk of signatures are found to be invalid. According to the Secretary of State’s office, the referendum could be officially certified by the middle of next week.
It goes without saying that marriage equality’s past record at the ballot box looks unpromising–32 out of 32 states have voted against marriage rights in the past. In reliably blue Washington, though, opponents of marriage equality face a tougher road than they have in some other states. Washington is the only state where a popular vote has uphold expanded rights for LGBT citizens: in 2009, voters upheld a law passed by the legislature that extended domestic partnerships to gay and lesbian couples. According to Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington who has conducted extensive polling on the issue, support for equal legal rights for same-sex couples has grown since 2009.
That means that marriage opponents must walk a fine line in the state as they try to avoid making it seem like they are against legal equality for gays and lesbians while striving to preserve the definition of marriage as a union of opposite-sex partners. Speaking to the New York Times, Joseph Backholm of the anti-marriage equality group Preserve Marriage Washington said that Washington voters this year will have a chance to make a decision on marriage only, and could repeal the new law without feeling like they’ve taken rights away from gay couples. In a way, the fact that Backholm has to frame the issue this way is in itself a victory for our side, since it shows that the island of exclusion he and his colleagues stand upon is being steadily eroded as public opinion changes. (Of course, this does mean that Backholm’s position is becoming increasingly tenuous and, in a sense, desperate, since it is essentially only a matter of semantics.)
The facts on the ground in Washington look good for our side: a recent independent poll found that 54 percent percent of Washingtonians approve of the legislature’s law, with only 33 percent opposed. Support among independents was also strong, with 52 percent in favor and 36 percent opposed. Obama carried Washington easily in 2008, and he enjoyed a 54 percent approval rating in the state just last week. In addition, marriage equality advocates have a big cash advantage so far: they’ve raised over $700,000, while opponents have so far raised only a little over $110,000.
Finally, another anti-marriage equality group in the state, the awkwardly named Marriage Equals One Man Plus One Woman, is seeking signatures for another ballot amendment that would institute a mini-DOMA in Washington limiting marriage to heterosexual couples only. That group must obtain 242,000 signatures by July 6, and has collected approximately 100,000, according to the Chicago Tribute. If both ballot measures qualify for the November election, it could create a bit of chaos for all sides, the effects of which are unclear, but which could bode well for marriage advocates if opponents are split between two measures.
When it comes to popular votes on marriage equality, it’s always wise to be cautious. We can be sure that our opponents will be out in droves between now and November, and its going to take both manpower and money for us to win. Still, in Washington state, we will be able to conduct perhaps the most aggressive campaign on the most positive ground that we’ve had so far. That in itself is enough of a reason for us to give it everything we’ve got.