OLYMPIA, Wash. â€” Evenly matched ballot fights overÂ same-sex marriageÂ have been about as rare in American politics as transits of Venus. Opponents have won by a knockout in state after state, with voters consistently preferring to define matrimony as a compact only for heterosexuals.
But as a consortium of groups opposed to Washington Stateâ€™s four-month-old gender-neutral marriage law filed their petitions here in the capital on Wednesday â€” the first salvo in a battle to repeal the statute at the ballot box in November â€” independent polls suggest that the playing field, at least here, may be leveling.
President Obamaâ€™s endorsement of same-sex marriage rights last month is probably the biggest new variable in a state that he won handily in 2008 and where he still had a 54 percent approval rating in a poll released last week by Strategies 360.
Washington is also the only state where voters have confirmed domestic partnership rights for gay couples, ratifying in 2009 a law passed by the Legislature. And support for that statute, which would not be affected by a November vote on the marriage law, has grown even stronger since 2009, said Matt Barreto, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington and principal investigator for the Washington Poll, which has regularlyÂ surveyed votersÂ on the issue.
What that means, he said, is that supporters of the rollback on the word â€œmarriageâ€ will need a far more delicate approach here than they have taken in other states, or risk a backlash from the majority of Washingtonians who say they want gays and lesbians to share the same legal rights.
Organizers of the petition drive said at a news conference on Wednesday that the outpouring of signatures â€” now facing a certification process by the secretary of stateâ€™s office â€” spoke for itself. The issue, they said, is far from settled.
â€œBy the end of the day, weâ€™re going to have upwards of 240,000 signatures, which is double the minimum requirement of eligible signatures and, we believe, the largest number of signatures ever delivered in a referendum in Washington State,â€ said Joseph Backholm, the chairman of Preserve Marriage Washington.
Mr. Backholm added that because the civil union law was not being challenged, the new debate over marriage would not be about taking away or preserving legal protections. Instead, he said, Washington voters would decide a finer distinction for only marriage itself and could thus vote to repeal the new law without feeling that legal harm was being done to anyone.
Supporters of Washingtonâ€™s law said the past four months â€” as opponents scurried to gather signatures â€” gave them an opportunity to prepare a defense. They plan a counterpunch campaign with a coalition of once-unlikely allies, including many church groups that now support or conduct same-sex weddings.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t suggest that itâ€™s a settled issue,â€ said Zach Silk, the campaign manager of Washington United for Marriage, which is leading the ballot fight in support of the law. â€œOur opponents are very good, and every time this has come to the ballot it has won.â€