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Five-State Sweep for Marriage Equality

November 7, 2012

Going into election day, the polling looked good for advocates of marriage equality.  But polling looked good in other referendums that ended up going against same-sex marriage rights. I was hopeful, but hardly certain.

As of this writing, it looks like same-sex marriage rights prevailed across the board, and it looks like we will soon have three new marriage equality states. Here’s the rundown:

Maine voters were called on to decide a voter-initiated proposal to legalize same-sex marriage in that state. In 2009, Maine voters vetoed marriage equality legislation by a 53-47 margin. Just three years later, Mainers have approved same-sex marriage by the same margin.

Maryland voters were deciding whether to override marriage equality legislation passed last February. With its large African-American population, Maryland was an important test for marriage equality outside its white liberal support base. President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage last spring initially boosted marriage equality poll numbers to substantial margins, but in the end the vote was relatively close: 52 percent for and 48 percent against same-sex marriage.

Washington State voters decided by a similar 52-48 margin to approve marriage equality legislation enacted last February.

Minnesota already has a legislative prohibition against same-sex marriage. Not satisfied with that, marriage equality opponents put a referendum on yesterday’s ballot that would write the prohibition into the state constitution. Pre-election polling was relatively limited and confusing, but it looked like an early wide margin in favor of the constitutional amendment (and against marriage equality) had eroded this fall.  Results last night showed a 51-48 rejection of the constitutional amendment.  (Minnesotans also rejected a constitutional amendment requiring voters to show voter ID at the polls.  That’s the Minnesota we came to know and love in Hubert Humphrey’s day.)

There was a fifth state referendum relevant to marriage equality – one that got relatively little national attention. Iowans voted on retention of Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins. Since 1962, Iowa has had a system of “merit selection” of judges, who are appointed to eight-year terms, after which voters decide whether to “retain” them for eight more years. In 2009, the seven justices of the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled that same-sex couples are constitutionally guaranteed the right to marry. In 2010, three of those justices came up for retention votes, and all three lost – the first time any Iowa judge had lost a retention vote. Yesterday, Justice Wiggins came up for a vote, and it looks like he won retention with about 54 percent of the vote. After the 2010 vote, opponents of marriage equality crowed that the retention vote that year showed that Iowa is a state of “We the people, not we the courts.” I think last night Iowans said that the people are with the courts.

It is commonly said that marriage equality opponents won all of the state-wide marriage equality referendums that were held before yesterday. In fact, marriage equality opponents did lose one, in Arizona in 2006. But Arizonans quickly got over their brief impulse of inclusiveness, decisively approving a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2008.

Still, no state-wide voter referendum had approved same-sex marriage until yesterday (Arizonans in 2006 only defeated a constitutional ban). Yesterday, voters in not one but three states approved same-sex marriage. There are now nine marriage equality states, plus Washington D.C. In three of those states, marriage equality was achieved by judicial intervention; in three (plus Washington D.C.) marriage equality was achieved by legislative action; in two, equality was achieved by legislative action approved by voters; and in one, marriage equality was enacted by voter referendum.

Meanwhile, national exit polling yesterday showed a 49-46 percent plurality of voters in favor of same-sex marriage rights. And in Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin was elected the nation’s first openly gay U.S. Senator.

In short, it simply can no longer be said that same-sex marriage is an anti-democratic creature of judicial activism.

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