By Lisa Keen
Poll observers saw the change coming about a month before voting on this year’s round of anti-gay marriage amendments. Voters in relatively conservative states appeared to be growing less supportive of the right-wing ballot measures to ban legal benefits for same-sex marriage and other relationships than voters had been in 20 other states who had previously approved them.
On election day Tuesday, that trend appeared to stay true. Although the measures passed in seven out of eight states, Republican-dominated Arizona rejected its proposed ban. And in several conservative states, the bans were approved by margins that were well below the 41 percent average recorded in voting in the 20 states which had previously approved the bans.
Cathi Herrod, spokeswoman for the group which sought approval of Proposition 107 in Arizona, told the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, that the vote in Arizona was an “aberration.” But a polling firm that worked for Arizona Together, the group which organized against the measure there, said late polling suggested voters were reluctant to take benefits away from gay families.
“Today, Arizona voters confirmed they want to preserve health care and legal protection for families,” said Joe Yuhas, a principle of Riester Public Affairs, on Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the national gay Republican group Log Cabin Republicans called the Arizona vote “an important milestone in the fight for equality.”
“Citizens of a conservative red state voted in favor of basic fairness and common decency,” said Log Cabin Executive Vice President Patrick Sammon.
The Arizona Together group also lined up an impressive array of support outside the community, including the mayors of Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff, the Tempe Firefighters, the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona.
In South Dakota, the constitutional ban squeaked by with only a four percent margin of victory. Two years earlier, North Dakota had approved a similar measure by a 46 percent margin. The group opposing Amendment C in South Dakota believes the relatively modest support for the anti-gay measure was due in large part to heavy voter turnout to oppose an amendment which sought to ban abortions in nearly every circumstance. The abortion proposal was rejected by a margin of 56 to 44 percent. The anti-gay marriage ban was approved by a margin of 52 to 48 percent.
In conservative Virginia, the margin of victory -14 percent– was also well below the 41 percent average by which such initiatives passed in other states in previous years.
In Republican dominated Colorado, the marriage ban passed with only a 12 percent margin -56 percent for, 44 percent against. And Colorado voters defeated a second measure -a referendum seeking to provide legal benefits for same-sex couples through domestic partnerships– by only 6 percentage points -47 percent for, 53 percent against.
Political observers were uncertain how the vote in Colorado might have been affected by a revelation the week before voting that a prominent Colorado evangelical opponent of equal rights for gays -Ted Haggard– had engaged the services of a male prostitute for several years. Some said it would discourage conservative turnout; others said it would have a backlash against gays.
In all of the eight states where the constitutional ban was on the ballot this month, support for the measures was expected to climb in reaction to the October 25 ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court that gay couples should have the same benefits of marriage as heterosexual couples. But in all but two southern states -South Carolina and Tennessee– the bans were approved by relatively low margins.
Idaho voters approved a ban there with only a 32 percent margin -66 percent for, 34 percent against. And Wisconsin voters approved the ban there by an 18 percent margin -59 percent for, 41 percent against.
Although the margin of victory was relatively low compared to other states, Wisconsin’s approval of the constitutional ban was still a blow to gay political activists. The state is more liberal and Democratic than Arizona. And, in 1982, Wisconsin was the first state to pass a statewide law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Mike Tate, campaign chairman for Fair Wisconsin, which opposed the measure, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that, although the campaign against the initiative prompted many gay people to come out to their friends and neighbors, the measure succeeded in part by voters’ failure to make a personal connection.
“We did not lose because the people of Wisconsin don’t like gay people,” said Tate. “We lost because the people of Wisconsin don’t know gay people.”
With constitutional bans now in place in 27 states, there are still potential battles for the future in 23 others -including Massachusetts, where marriage licenses have been available to same-sex couples on par with heterosexual couples since May 2004. On Thursday, the state legislature was set to vote on whether to send a proposed constitutional ban to the state ballot there in 2008.