Marriage Rights Safe in Iowa

Iowa Democrats held on to a key state senate seat yesterday. Liz Mathis defeated Republican Cindy Golding by a 12-point margin, allowing Democrats to maintain their 26-24 majority in the chamber. If Golding had come out ahead, the two parties would have negotiated a power-sharing system, granting the GOP the leverage they would need to introduce their favored bills.*

The result of this single election is a monumental win for same-sex marriage advocates. It means that Iowa's marriage law can't be overturned for at least the next five years. Unlike in other states, amending the state constitution in Iowa is a long, arduous task; it requires the legislature to pass the amendment in two consecutive sessions interspersed with a general election, then be passed by a public referendum. Even if Golding had won, 2014 would have been the earliest point a referendum could appear on the ballot. With Democrat Mike Gronstal—a staunch defender of the state's current marriage laws—still at the helm of the senate for the next year, a marriage amendment cannot be put before voters until the 2016 election, even if Republicans win an overwhelming majority of the state elections next year.

There is little chance of any amendment ever making its way to voters thanks to that extra buffer. It would have been a close contest if a same-sex marriage ban had been on the ballot last night, but the state has no public referendum process. A poll from Public Policy Polling last month gave a hypothetical amendment an initial 50 percent to 43 percent advantage. But the fight over marriage rights is a race against time. From a demographic standpoint, proponents of same-sex marriage will face a friendlier electorate if a ban makes it on the ballot in 2016. The strongest opposition to LGBT equality came from seniors, who, according to polls, support amending the constitution by a margin of 62 percent to 29 percent. At the risk of offending our older readers, nature will thankfully make those folks a smaller percentage of the voting public in five years. They'll be replaced by younger voters, who support marriage equality at much higher rates. In that same poll, Iowans between the ages of 18 and 29 said they would vote against a marriage amendment.

It's the same trend at the national level. Americans now narrowly support marriage equality, but younger generations favor it by a wide margin. And even older voters have shown an increasing willingness to change their views. According to a recent study from Pew, 42 percent of baby boomers support same-sex marriage today, while only 26 percent from that age cohort favored it 15 years ago.

The longer same-sex marriage stays in place, the more normalized it becomes. Older Iowans will continue to see their gay neighbors wed and realize that the sky hasn't fallen. 

Iowa plays a key symbolic role for the continued fight for marriage equality nationally. Just two states provided LGBT couples the right to wed when Barack Obama was inaugurated three years ago, and California's population had just sent a crushing blow to the movement when it approved Proposition 8. Now, six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to wed. Yet Iowa remains the only state with marriage equality outside the Northeast. Bringing the fight for marriage rights outside of the traditional liberal bastions was one of the primary reasons Lambda Legal filed the initial lawsuit in Iowa. "It would give gay people and our allies in the middle of the country a shot in the arm, that victory and change is possible where they live, not just in faraway—perhaps to them theoretical—places," Kevin Cathcart, the group's executive director, told me earlier this year. He credited Iowa's marriages laws with possibly stirring Illinois, the state's southeastern neighbor, to passing civil unions for same-sex couples at the start of the year.

Legalized same-sex marriage across the country is inevitable. The question is less whether the country will end its legalized bigotry but rather how soon that change will come. As marriage equality moves beyond its New England stronghold, it will become a common fact of life for Americans across the country.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that Republicans would have control of the chamber given the lieutenant governor's tie-breaking vote. The state amended its constitution in 1988 to put governors and their lieutenants on the same ticket, thus stripping the lieutenant governor of this power.

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