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Angles on R-71

As of this afternoon, the vote on Washington Referendum 71 – whether to sustain the state law providing “everything but marriage” for same-sex domestic partnerships – continues close but has been holding steady, at 51% yes, 49% no. The potential for a flip remains, but the odds are growing that the voters will have upheld the law.

What that vote means depends on a considerable degree on what lessons you can to extract. One lesson, for example: The fact that “everything but marriage” was so close suggests that a vote on actual marriage would have lost, though probably not overwhelmingly, but much as it did in Maine.

What lessons might be drawn on a larger scale?

Oregonian political writer Jeff Mapes blogs that “Tuesday was a pretty good day for opponents of same-sex marriage.” Bearing in mind that Oregon gay rights activists are planning a gay marriage measure for the 2012 ballot, and the indication that domestic partnerships may be more acceptable territory than marriage, Mapes suggests that “Tuesday night’s returns will, at a minimum, throw up a big yellow caution flag for gay-rights advocates.”

Maybe more compelling, though, is the reaction this morning from Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, who sees a different significance in the vote: “It appears Washington state will be the first in America to approve a gay-equality measure not by court fiat or legislative action, but by the direct will of the people. It’s never happened before. If the slim lead holds for the gay-partnership law Referendum 71, it would be a landmark. Huge. . . no state has ever approved a pro-gay vote.”

He points to the example of a 1997 Washington state vote rejecting – with 59.7% majority – a ban on discriminating against gays. (The ballot title was: “Shall discrimination based on sexual orientation be prohibited in employment, employment agency, and union membership practices, without requiring employee partner benefits or preferential treatment?”) After yesterday’s vote, you suspect that such a ballot issue would have gone decisively the other way this year.

Westneat: “The take-away: The gay-rights movement has won over to its side 10 to 12 percent of this state in the past dozen years. That’s about 1 percent per year. That may not seem like much. But sweeping political change occurs when the center 5 or 10 percent shifts to the other side.”

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