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Mapping Same-Sex Marriage in Washington State

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With the ground-breaking passage of same-sex marriage in New York earlier this year, the microscope has turned to a handful of other states as the next potential victory for gay rights.   The next two states most likely to pass same-sex marriage are Maryland and Washington state.   Maryland’s Senate already passed the measure in early 2011, and the house is likely to pass it next year with some pushing by the governor.   Washington state is next on the list, but its vote is much trickier.

The Battle for Washington

According to pro-gay legislators in the state, the biggest hurdle to same-sex marriage in Washington is the state senate.  The house is expected to have the votes to pass, but there will have to be strong push in the Senate for any hope of passage.  Right now Democrats control the Senate by a 27 to 22 vote margin (with 25 of the 49 seats constituting a majority).  This is four votes short of where the Democrats where last year (having lost 4 seats in 2010).  However, their narrow control of the state senate still means Democrats control all functions of government in the state.

There hasn’t been any public whip count on how a vote for same-sex marriage would turn out if the state senate votes early next year, making predicting the results harder.  However, we do have two useful tools for determining how the current crop of senator’s may vote if/when the measure comes to the senate floor.   In 2009, the state passed an “everything but marriage” law, which granted same-sex couples civil unions with all the same state privileges afforded to heterosexual couples.   This law was then put to the voters for approval in November of 2009, and passed with 53% of the vote.   With these two votes, the votes of the Senators themselves and the referendum results, we can see where Senators and their districts stand on the issue of gay rights.

The 2009 Senate vote

The 2009 vote in the Washington state senate to pass the “everything but marriage” law gives a good barometer on where current senators stand on gay rights.  Granted, some senators who supported the civil union law may not support total gay marriage at the time.  However, with each year that goes by, gay marriage becomes more accepted, and lawmaker’s views continue to evolve.  I am going to take the stand that a senator who voted for the civil union law in 2009 is at least a lean vote in favor of total marriage.

Before we get a ahead of ourselves, lets take a look at how the vote went down.   The measure passed the Senate with 30 votes in 2009, with a few democratic “no’s” and a few Republican “yes’.”   However, with the loss of a 4 democratic seats in 2010, as well as successful democratic primary challenges and democratic retirements, the current composition of the senate is different from the 2009 vote:  only so many of the original “yes” votes remain.

Lets take a look at the current senate makeup.  Click the images for a larger view.

Lets zoom in to the populated inner-coastal areas and Seattle metro area.

Of the original 30 yes votes for civil unions, 17 (not counting the two republican yes votes) remain.  There are six new Democrats, and 4 original Democratic “no” votes.  Assuming the new democrats and the “no” democrats can be pressured by the party to vote when needed, that gives same-sex marriage supporters 29 potential votes if you count the 2 republican yes’s from 2009.  That is cutting it close when you need 25 votes to pass.  Even assuming the 6 new democrats all vote yes, if the two republican yes votes won’t go for full marriage and the 4 no democrats stand firm, then that leaves us with 23 votes, 2 short of passage.

However, we can do further analysis to see if addition votes are get-able by looking at the November 2009 referendum where the people of Washington voted to uphold the new civil unions law.

The 2009 Referendum

After the 2009 vote to push the “everything but marriage” law through the legislature, opponents vowed to gather the petition to put the measure up for public approval in the November election.  The signatures where gathered and a vote did take place.   In a night that was good for Republicans, who took governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, and saw the Maine same-sex marriage law get struck down by the voters; Washington bucked the nightly trend and voted to uphold the civil unions law by a vote of 53% to 47%.

The vote was a major victory for gay rights supporters, marking the first time the voters of any state upheld a gay rights expansion (granted most of the liberal states don’t have refernedum procedures to begin with).  The results show the county-by-county breakdown.  The referendum won big in the heavily populated counties on the coastal area, while the scarcely-populated eastern counties voted heavily against.  Indeed, Washington, similar to Oregon, have a significant west-east divide; with the western portions being more liberal, and the easter areas being heavily conservative.

The county vote is nice, but since state senate districts cross county lines, we must look to a map of the results of the referendum by state senate district.

Unfortunately the referndum results by districts aren’t very encouraging at first glance.  Several of the “yes” districts voted heavily for civil unions (providing the 53% state-wide), however, civil unions lost narrowly in several other districts.  This blanked yes-no map only tells us so much, lets take a look at the districts broken down by percentages “yes”.

This paints a slighty more optomistic picture.  28 total districts voted 49% and higher for civil unions, and 6 additional districts voted over 45% to 48%.  Why are these numbers so optomistic?  Take into account that 2009 was a more conservative-leaning year and also, that support for gays rights is rapidly growing with every year. We are almost two years removed from the referndum, and based on the climb in public support for gay unions, those 49% districts are almost surely over 50% now, and the lower 6 districts are likely creepy up on 50%.   Surely any represenative in these 34 districts won’t vote no because they fear a backlash from voters.

Just look at gallups latest results on gay marriage from May of 2010, which show a majority backing same-sex marriage for the first time.  Look at the trend upward since 1996.  Even the trend over the last few years has shown  a steady climb for same-sex unions.

Considering that steady climb, even though the 2009 referendum was over civil unions and not marriage, I believe its the case can be made that same-sex marriage support is higher now than the civil union support of 2009 was thanks to that steady growth in support of same-sex unions.

I talked before about the strong support for civil unions in several of the coastal districts, especially those in and around liberal-strong Seattle.

The dark blotches of green on the lower part of the image and on the eastern side of the water-front is Seattle, where support was actually above 80%, and even 90% in one of the Seattle-based districts.

Seattle

Seattle truly demonstrated amazing support for the gay community during the referendum.  Granted this is no surprise considering the city’s strong liberal reputation.  The image below shows the cities borders over the state senate districts of the area.

Look at the heavy dark green in the north.  Look at the next image below.

The three highlighted districts, which all fall entirely under the boundaries of Seattle., voted over 80% in favor of civil unions in 2009.  District 43 voted 91% in favor, district 36 voted 85% in favor, and district 46 voted 82% in favor.

To look even further at how strong Seattle backed civil unions, lets look at the precinct results in Seattle on the referendum.

Amazing, well over two-thirds of the precincts voted over 80% for civil unions, with only 3 of the over 960 precincts voting less than 50%.  A large patch of precincts in the middle of the city (over 200) voted over 90% in support.  I think its safe to say Seattle is and will continue to be one of the most gay friendly cities in the nation.

Ok, so we have looked at Seattle and the overall results for the 2009 referendum, so what does that mean going forward for same-sex marriage in Washington?

Likely vote breakdown in 2012

Now that I’ve looked at what the representatives of the 49 senate districts stand on gay rights based off the 2009 vote, as well as the districts’ political leanings based off the referendum later that year, I can now construct a formula to see how a current senator may vote on same-sex marriage if the issue comes up in 2012.

I have placed all 49 districts in 5 categories on same-sex marriage.  Strong Yes, Lean Yes, Swing, Lean No, and Strong No.   The criteria for each category are as follows.

Strong Yes

Districts that fall under the strong yes category would be those where the senator voted for civil unions and the district also upheld the law in a referendum.  This includes one of the two “yes” republicans.  Anyone in this category already showed support for gay rights and would be pressured to take that final step for equality knowing they are unlikely to suffer political ramifications with their constitutents.  Also, this category includes 2 new democrats in districts that heavily support unions in the referendum.

Lean Yes

This category covers 3 new democrats that fall in districts with medium support for civil unions in 2009, the democrat “yes” votes that where is less than favorable districts (some only slightly against, others more-so).   These legislators will feel pressure to either 1)support what their district wants or 2) in the case of the yes votes in bad districts, hope the tide has turned since 2009.   Those who voted yes before are likely to still be yes’s.  The new democrats will want to support support the will of their districts’ constituents.

Swing 

This category covers new Republicans that find themselves in districts that supported civil unions in the referndum and will thus feel pressured to go with their constituents on the matter.  In addition, the “no” democrats, all from swing districts (slight yes and slight no) are in this category and could possibly be persuaded by new polling and party leadership.   This also covers the 1 new democrat that came in to a swing/lean-no district that will feel pressure on both sides.  Finally, it covers the remaining Republican yes vote, who’s district voted against civil unions in the referendum.

Lean No

This category covers new Republicans in slightly bad districts as well as past Republican no’s in narrowly bad districts.

Strong No

Any Republican No from before that also saw his district go decidedly against civil unions in the referendum or a new republican in a district that went heavily against civil unions.

.

Lets take a look at the results of this categorization.

Before I get into this, lets zoom to the coastal and Seattle area.

In total, 14 senators fall under the “strong yes” category, followed by 9 “lean yes.” which puts the count at 23, two votes shy of passage.  Luckily, there are 9 additional swing districts, giving supports of gay marriage a total of 32 potential votes to grab 25 from.  Support is unsurpisingly found strongest in the coastal area around Seattle.  Several of the purple precincts are former “no” democrats or new Republicans.   Overall there are several votes to work with to get to the magic number of 25.

A quick run-down of the party breakdown of the categories.

Strong Yes

  • 12 former-Yes Democrats
  • 2 New Democrats
Lean Yes
  • 5 former-Yes Democrats
  • 1 former-Yes Republican
  • 3 New Democrats
Swing
  • 1 former-Yes Republican
  • 4 former-No Democrats
  • 3 New Republicans
  • 1 New Democrat
Lean No
  • 4 No Republicans
  • 1 New Republican
Strong No
  • 10 No Republicans
  • 2 New Republicans
Final Assessment
Based of the analysis above, I believe same sex marriage has a respectable chance of passing.  The fight to approve same-sex marriage is similar to what it was in New York, it is an uphill fight.  Washington does not enjoy the strong level of support for same-sex marriage that New York has (58%), and while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is very popular and his popularity helped push the measure through, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire is facing underwater approval ratings in her state.  However, the main advantage Washington has that New York didn’t is Democratic control over both chambers of the legislature.  When the same-sex marriage vote reaches the state senate, it will be up to the Democratic leadership to push to keep their party in line.   New Democrats and former “no” democrats will have to pressured to hold the party line on the vote, while at the same the three new Republicans from  pro-gay districts will have to be lobbied hard to back their communities wishes.   The vote would likely be close either way, but with 32 potential votes to work from, getting the the magic number of 25 is reachable.  It all depends on how intense the lobbying effort is and how hard the Democratic leadership is willing to invest in equality.  If passed, a referendum on the measure would likely take place in November 2012, when turnout is high, thus helping the chances of it same-sex marriage being upheld.   A referendum result from November 2012 would probably show 52-48 or 51-49 in favor of upholding same-sex marriage.  Right now polling shows a two-point advantage on same-sex marriage in Washington, with several undecideds.  But before we can talk about a potential referendum, the vote first must take place and the bill must be passed.  If the Democratic leadership makes same-sex marriage a top priority and puts pressure on its members, then I believe the opportunity for victory is there.
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