The Other Gay-Rights Vote: Why Referendum 71 in Washington Matters

While gay-rights activists mourn their loss in Maine, they should not discount the projected victory of Referendum 71 in Washington state. If the measure passes, the Evergreen State will be the first to approve gay equality by direct will of the people, rather than the court or legislature.

Nicknamed "Everything But Marriage," Referendum 71 asked voters to reconfirm the state legislature's recent expansion of domestic partnership rights, signed by Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire this past spring. Granted, the bill does not protect gay marriage. But it would recognize the rights of domestic partners "to be equivalent to those of married spouses." There's a week's worth of ballot-counting remaining—Washington is one of two vote-by-mail states—but returns so far look good for gay-rights activists.

Referendum 71 has not received nearly the attention of the gay marriage law in Maine. And if Referendum 71 does indeed pass, some will write off its success as uninteresting. This is, after all, liberal Washington state that we are talking about; of course a gay-equality referendum will pass. Moreover, Referendum 71 does not reach for gay marriage, but just gay equality. But as a native Seattleite, I don't think we should discount the importance of Referendum 71 so quickly. Here's why:

First, Washington state is not just Seattle. Outside of the state's northwest corner, which includes Seattle and college town Bellingham, Washington is, by and large, a conservative place. As we know from other states, gay-rights ballots tend to encourage conservative-voter turnout.

Second, even Seattle does not support every liberal ballot measure that comes its way. Just this past summer, Seattle voters rejected a 5 cent tax on disposable shopping bags.

Third, and finally, Washingtonians have not always supported gay rights at the polls. Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat reminds us today that the "supposedly liberal" Evergreen State has not always voted in support of gay rights. In 1997, "Washington rejected a gay anti-discrimination law by a landslide, 60 percent to 40 percent," Westneat writes. "That vote set back the drive for gay equality here by nearly a decade."

So if current projections are accurate, and Referendum 71 passes, it does mean something for the gay-rights movement. Namely, that voters are increasingly willing to support gay rights at the polls. This fits in nicely with the argument put forth by NEWSWEEK columnist Jacob Weisberg in this week's magazine. He writes that gay-rights legislation will continue to pass "not because politics has changed, but because society has." "What's driving the legalization of gay marriage is not so much the moral argument," he argues, "but the pressures from couples who want to sanctify their relationships." And that explains why Washington has seen double-digit shifts in support for gay rights in just over a decade. And why, after 31 states have voted to reject gay marriage, you now have a state voting to approve gay equality.