Putting Marriage Rights to a Vote

The country's gradual movement toward marriage equality took a step further last week. Democrats in Iowa won a closely contested special election, which allowed the party to maintain their senate majority and essentially assured that no amendment to overturn same-sex marriage will be put to a vote until 2015 at the absolute earliest. That followed a New Jersey court's decision to hear a case that might replace the state's civil unions provision with full marriage rights.

But a bit of bad news snuck through as well. Basic Rights Oregon—or BRO, a delightful acronym for the state's leading LGBT rights group—announced that they would abandon their goal of putting a pro-marriage measure on the ballot in 2012, with their sights now set on 2014. "It is not a question of if we will cross this threshold, but when," the group's board wrote in a release.  "We have considered the possibility of putting this issue on the ballot for the 2012 election. However several factors, including the expense of waging a statewide political campaign in the midst of an economic crisis, led us to conclude that we are better off extending our education campaign and building momentum for a later election."

Oregon was one of the 13 states that passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2004 (28 in total have such a provision). Because of that vote, the only recourse for advocates of marriage equality in Oregon is to reverse the amendment through the same ballot process.

Oregonians rejected marriage equality by a 57-43 percent margin in 2004, but—much as the national mood has become increasingly tolerant over the past seven years—poll numbers from Oregon have flipped. A Public Policy Polling survey from this summer put support for marriage equality at 48-42 percent. The Portland Mercury's Sarah Mirk reports that it wasn't quite enough of an advantage for LGBT advocates to feel comfortable putting marriage equality to the test:

That’s one thing BRO can count on anytime they decide to push for gay marriage: a big, expensive, ugly battle. Asked about a ballot measure back in September, Teresa Lucas of the conservative Oregon Family Council said, “If we have to fight, we’re going to fight hard."… BRO estimates a 2012 campaign will cost $10 million—which they’d need to raise this winter (in this recession). Getting on the presidential ballot in the fall means getting a boost from young voters and Democrats, but BRO also fears a wave of conservative backlash.

While that's an understandable fear, it's a shame that the majority of Oregonians who favor LGBT rights won't have the option to change the law next year. It is still a slog to reach a national consensus, but the trend has been slow progress toward expanding access to marriage rights, especially in the three years following California's Proposition. Six states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage. Yet these laws are still largely confined to the parts of the country stereotypically deemed liberal, with Iowa as the lone exception outside the northeast. The movement needs expand to all regions before it can convincingly sell itself to the country as a whole. But after California in 2008, LGBT advocates have been hesitant to put the issue before voters, generally pursuing legislative or legal options rather than the referendums. So far, the only two measures up for a vote in 2012—one in Minnesota, the other in North Carolina—are to restrict, rather than expand marriage equality.