Washington voters have accomplished a national first by ratifying a new law that makes state registered domestic partnerships fully parallel to civil marriage.  The provisional election result for Referendum 71 is currently 53.15% to 46.85%.  This story is huge and is already getting some well-deserved attention.  And remember, we won by a comfortable margin in an off-year election when the likely voter pool is dominated by older, more conservative voters.  We know support for domestic partnerships is much higher in the general electorate.

Much is being made of the geographic clustering of counties where the majority of voters have approved R-71 (right, in green).  Vote results are dismissed by some folk with a “well of course Puget Sound counties…”.  It is true that election results do rather neatly support the stereotype of Washington’s east-west divide.  But putting the R-71 results in historical context reveals a deeper story: almost every Washington county shows an increase in pro-equality voting.

The last time Washington voters had the opportunity to ratify a pro-equality law at the polls was in 1997.  Initiative to the People 677 proposed an employment non-discrimination law.  The ballot title read Shall discrimination based on sexual orientation be prohibited in employment, employment agency, and union membership practices, without requiring employee partner benefits or preferential treatment?.  

The measure was rejected 59.7% to 40.3%.  Contrary to the current image of the Puget Sound area of Washington as progressive, not one single county – not even Seattle’s home of King County – voted to approve I-677.  Contrast that with the current election where the electorate as a whole approved R-71 and majorities in 10 of Washington’s 39 counties have approved R-71.  But the truly stunning statistic is that the rate of ballot measure approval increased between 1997 and 2009 in all but one county.

Another mark of progress is the fact that voters in 21 counties approved R-71 by over 40%.  Forty percent was the average statewide approval rate for I-677 in 1997.  Those 21 counties are: Clallam, Clark, Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Kittitas, Klickitat, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Skamania, Snohomish, Thurston, Wahkiakum, Whatcom, Whitman.

As you consider the graph, realize that in contrast to R-71, I-677 was rather narrow in scope.  It dealt only with the employment discrimination of individuals.  Voting yes on I-677 didn’t ask voters to contemplate the meaning of family; didn’t ask voters to recognize the existence of gay and lesbian parents; didn’t ask voters to find the fiction in school-focused scare tactics.  In other words, not only have Washington voters moved towards equality in virtually every county, they’ve shown by their R-71 vote that they’re open to supporting equality much more comprehensively in the law.  This is big.Cross-posted at Washblog.