Same-sex marriage law leading in Washington

Nov 6, 2012

Washington voters are narrowly approving same-sex marriage in the state, following the lead of voters in Maryland and Maine, where ballot measures on same-sex unions also are holding slim leads.

With about half of the expected vote counted Tuesday night, Referendum 74 was passing with 53 percent of the vote.

The referendum asked voters to approve or reject the state's new law legalizing same-sex marriage. That law was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire earlier this year, but it's been on hold pending the election's outcome.

Video: KPLU videographer David Kellogg captured the hopes and tensions of election night as one same-sex couple waited for elections results:

About $13.6 million was spent on Washington state's campaign, with the bulk of it coming from gay marriage supporters.

The first marriages in the state could be on Dec.9, said Andy Grow, a spokesperson for Washington United for Marriage.

The group is the major backer for the effort to approve Senate Bill 6239, which “would allow same-sex couples to marry, preserve domestic partnerships only for seniors and preserve the right of clergy or religious organizations to refuse to perform, recognize or accommodate any marriage ceremony,” according to the state voters guide.

Because Washington requires a three-day waiting period and Dec. 6 would be the first day people would be allowed to apply for a marriage license, Grow said, couples will have to wait until Dec. 9 to hold marriage ceremonies. 

Run-up to vote count

Although same-sex marriage is currently legal in six other states, it has never survived a state-wide vote. Since the Massachusetts Supreme Court allowed the nation’s first gay weddings in 2004, voters in 32 states have rejected those rights for same-sex couples.

“It shows you are getting to a tipping point where public opinion has moved a lot since 2004,” says Todd Donovan, professor of Political Science at Western Washington University. “Its not like Washington is an outlier, we just happen to have it on the ballot at a time when country has moved in this direction.”

Genesis of a referendum

In February, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a bill that legalized same-sex marriage in Washington state, making it the nation's seventh to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed.

However, in June, Preserve Marriage Washington submitted more than 200,000 signatures to block the law from taking effect and set in motion the creation of Referendum 74.

The bill that Gregoire signed, Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 6239, “would allow same-sex couples to marry, preserve domestic partnerships only for seniors and preserve the right of clergy or religious organizations to refuse to perform, recognize or accommodate any marriage ceremony,” according to the state voters guide.

The referendum asks if the bill should be approved or rejected.

Washington United for Marriage raised more than $10.5 million in cash and in-kind donations for its overall campaign to support the bill, far more than the $1.8 million raised by Preserve Marriage Washington, which opposed the law.

Early battles over the law

Some of the early fighting over the referendum centered on the language that would appear on the ballot.

In March, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee removed a controversial phrase proposed by Attorney General Rob McKenna that the new law "redefined marriage," which gay marriage supporters have argued was prejudicial. 

McPhee's ruling cleared the way for same-sex marriage opponents to begin collecting signatures to put Referendum 74 on the ballot.

Historic movement

Washington’s referendum on same-sex marriage is one of 174 ballot propositions across 37 states that Reid Wilson, the editor in chief of National Journal's Hotline, says will change the day-to-day lives of average Americans more than who wins the presidency.

"There are three initiatives on the ballot in Maine, Maryland and Washington state this year, in which voters will have the opportunity to legalize gay marriage. In two cases, Maryland and Washington, they would vote to ratify initiatives that have already been passed by the state legislature. In Minnesota there is a ban on same-sex marriage that is on the ballot this time around — a state constitutional ban," he told NPR’s All Things Considered.

Major supporters of the movement to approve same-sex marriage included Bill and Melinda Gates, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and his wife Mackenzie, Brad Pitt and even President Obama, who declared his support for gay marriage in May. The president later came through Seattle where his support was celebrated.