OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — With Washington state’s new law permitting gay marriage officially headed to the ballot, voters in the state will once again weigh in on the debate over same-sex couples and marriage rights.
Voters here have already upheld a domestic partnership law granting gay and lesbian couples all the state-granted rights of marriage, the so-called “everything but marriage” law. This time, though, there’s no “everything but” to decide — voters will ultimately determine if Washington state should join the handful of others in the country that permit gay marriage.
Referendum 74 was certified for the ballot this week after sponsors turned in more than 240,000 signatures last week, far more than the minimum of 120,577 valid voter signatures required.
The referendum seeks to overturn the new law passed earlier this year allowing same-sex marriage in the state. That law was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire in February. The law was supposed to take effect last Thursday but was put on hold once the signatures were turned in the day before.
Supporters of same-sex marriage say they’re ready to spend the next few months talking to voters who may be on the fence.
“It’s a very complicated issue,” said Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage, which supports the new law. “We know voters are still wrestling with this. We don’t take anything for granted.”
Washington isn’t alone in discussing gay marriage this election year. Maine, Maryland and Minnesota are likely to have closely contested gay marriage measures on their ballots.
In all 32 states where the issue of gay marriage has been on the ballot in past years, voters have rejected it. Most of those votes came between 2004 and 2008. The most recent vote was North Carolina’s last month, approving a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions.
“It definitely makes for an uphill battle,” said Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington. “Those 32 states represent a good cross section of different types of states. That being said, I think that a lot of people who have been following the trends in Washington state think that Washington state could be the state to end that streak.”
Washington state’s momentum for same-sex marriage has been building and the debate has changed significantly since 1998, when lawmakers passed Washington’s ban on gay marriage. The constitutionality of that law ultimately was upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2006. But earlier that same year, a gay civil rights measure passed after nearly 30 years of failure, signaling a change in the Legislature. The state’s first domestic partnership law was passed in 2007, then was expanded in 2008.
Barreto noted voters’ 2009 decision on Referendum 71, where, on a 53-47 percent vote, they upheld that year’s final expansion of the state’s domestic partnership law.
“Even though it did not have the word marriage in it, the people of Washington state did vote in favor of full legal rights for same-sex couples,” he said.
Opponents say that vote doesn’t necessarily transfer to the new measure because now the word marriage will appear on ballots.
“People do see it differently,” said Joseph Backholm, chairman of Preserve Marriage Washington. “The decision won’t be, ‘are we being fair to people?’ The decision will be, ‘what is marriage?'”
A recent poll by Seattleconsulting firm Strategies 360 showed that 54 percent of voters in the state think it should be legal for same-sex couples to get married, though the poll didn’t specifically ask them how they would vote on a referendum.
Democratic Sen. Ed Murray, a gay lawmaker from Seattlewho has led the push for gay rights in the state for several years, said that supporters of same-sex marriage should not be overly confident, noting that the opposition this time will be much tougher than what they faced with the “everything but marriage” referendum in 2009.
“Our opposition this time is very organized, they’re on message and they’ll pour millions into this state,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The referendum has split the state’s two candidates for governor, with Democrat Jay Inslee in support of gay marriage, and Republican Rob McKenna, who said he voted to uphold the “everything but marriage” law in 2009 but will vote to overturn the new marriage law in November.
Gay marriage supporters, long expecting that the referendum would qualify, have been raising money to protect the law, as national groups, including the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage, have said they’ll aggressively fight to strike it down. The National Organization for Marriage was involved in ballot measures that overturned same-sex marriage in California and Maine.
So far, Washington United for Marriage has raised more than $1.1 million for the campaign to fight back attempts to overturn the law. Preserve Marriage Washington has raised more than $120,000, according to the most recent numbers with the Public Disclosure Commission, though now that the measure has qualified, the money race is expected to heat up significantly in the coming months.
Gay marriage is currently legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C. Maryland legalized gay marriage this year as well, but that state is also poised to have a public vote this fall. In Maine, voters will decide on an initiative to approve same-sex marriage three years after a referendum overturned a law passed by the Maine Legislature. And in Minnesota, voters will decide whether or not to pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage there.
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