In 2004, Oregon approved a state constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage by the narrowest margin in the country; 57% of voters said, “yes.” The Oregon electorate, which has voted Democrat in presidential elections since 1988, still provided a hefty majority. In Virginia, a similar amendment is on the ballot this year, but is facing what appears to be a tougher challenge on the road to approval.
A recent Washington Post poll showed just 53% of likely voters plan to pull the lever in favor of the amendment. A fairly solid majority by other standards, the figure is significantly lower than the passage numbers of similar measures in other states in 2004 and 2005.
Claire Guthrie Castanaga, spokeswoman for the anti-amendment group Commonwealth Coalition, chalks the lack of support up to vague text and a decline in the saliency of marriage issues.
“I think every political issue has a product development curve, where it peaks and then declines,” said Castanaga. “The more voters have tuned in and know what’s going on, the more they start to ask questions.”
Castanaga and Commonwealth Coalition’s ad campaign are imploring the voters to, “read all of [the amendment,]” implying that although some parts of the amendment may be attractive to voters, other, more complex language within could spook them.
Castanaga declined to comment on the campaign’s target audience, be it heterosexual or homosexual couples, married or unmarried, but repeatedly pointed to the seeming complexity of the amendment.
“It’s being presented as very simplistic, when in fact it’s very complex and confusing,” said Castanaga. “It’s a wholesale invitation for the government to invade our private lives.”
Opposition groups have speculated that the second portion of the amendment, which prohibits the state from recognizing a legal status for, “relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage,” could lead to a lack of domestic violence abuse protections, inheritance rights, and other unintended consequences for those who would otherwise support a marriage protection amendment.
But Virginia Atty. Gen. Bob McConnell has indicated that the amendment would do nothing of the sort. The state’s chief law enforcement officer has stated in a press release that the measure would not affect the rights of unmarried couples involving contracts, wills, insurance matters, or domestic violence protection.
However vague some text may be, modest support for the amendment could be the result of well-financed opposition and changing demographics.
“I think opposition is much better focused and financed than in 2004,” said
Daniel Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, and a well-known expert on state ballot initiatives, adding that, “[Virginia is] not as red as some people have thought, especially in the northern region.”
Victoria Cobb, spokeswoman for VA4Marriage.org, isn’t particularly concerned with the Washington Post’s figures.
“If you look at [the states who have recently passed a marriage protection amendment] the polling runs 5 to 20 points below turnout,” said Cobb, adding, “We’re not worried.”
Citing state supreme courts overruling marriage protection laws in Massachusetts and New Jersey, Cobb sees enough headlines to keep voters aware of the issue.
If each of the eight 2006 marriage amendments attains passage, the total will reach 28-state majority. If today Virginia becomes the first state to defeat such a measure, it would indicate to gay rights groups nationwide that a victory is possible—even in a two-time Bush state—given the right funding and efforts. If not, the loss would serve as another piece in a growing pile of evidence that suggests relative political uniformity on marriage remains in America.