Alisha knows what's going on. She's been involved in local political causes, has worked with various nonprofits, and is generally an engaged citizen. But when I told my old friend at the park on a recent Sunday about an upcoming debate on Referendum 71, she gave me a vacant look. My mom called me that same day, and I mentioned Referendum 71 to her. "Which one is that?" she asked. An informal poll of people I talked to last weekend—gay, straight, and overall informed—revealed this: Half of them don't know what R-71 is, why it's on the ballot, or why they should vote to approve it.
Okay, if you already know what Referendum 71 is, thank you, and please bear with me for one paragraph while everyone else gets up to speed.
Last spring, the state legislature voted to expand the state's domestic-partnership law, thereby extending all of the state-granted rights of marriage to registered same-sex partners. The gay delegation in the legislature has been clear: Domestic-partnership laws promote the discussion about marriage equality while protecting gay and lesbian families from discrimination. There are about 6,000 registered couples in Washington, including a handful of senior straight couples who also qualify. But in an attempt to repeal the bill, an Oregon pastor and a Christian extremist teamed up to gather signatures to put it on the fall ballot. They lied all the way, claiming the bill would teach school kids about gay sex and that it is actually about gay marriage (even though there are 1,138 federal marriage rights that domestic partners don't have, like Social Security and immigration rights, and it says nothing about school curriculum). A vote to approve the measure is a vote to uphold the domestic-partnership law, thereby advancing gay rights. But polling shows voters may reject it.
"It is the culmination of 29 years of work," says state senator Ed Murray (D-43), the bill's prime sponsor. "To lose would be a setback."
"If the domestic-partnership law is repealed, families will suffer real and immediate harm," says Josh Friedes, a spokesman for Washington Families Standing Together, which is running the Approve R-71 campaign. "We are talking about not being able to take leave from work for critically ill partners; we are talking about partners of public-sector employees not getting their pension benefits, which means living in poverty or near poverty in old age."
In addition, he warns, losing would "embolden the radical right."
Opinion research shows that R-71 holds a tenuous majority of public support. A poll released on September 22 by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that only 51 percent of likely voters would approve the measure. The key word here is "likely." Scads of people don't vote in off-year elections, and the people who don't vote in these years are people like Alisha. If you're reading this paper, a lot of your friends are those voters. But if lots of those people vote, the referendum will pass.
"Younger urban voters often don't vote," Friedes warns—the kind of voters who are likeliest to support gay rights. "And a person being supportive of gay rights who doesn't vote is of no help."
Records from the secretary of state's office show that about 70 percent of registered voters between the ages of 18 and 34 voted in last November's general election, when Barack fucking Obama was on the ballot. But when zero black men were running for president, in the 2008 primary election, less than 19 percent of that same demographic turned out. Only 27 percent of people between 35 and 44 voted. In contrast, 72 percent of people over 65 voted. Older, more conservative voters dominated last August's primary election, and they are likely to dominate this year's off-year general election. Bluntly put, R-71 will lose if too many voters under 50 skip the election.
There are three sorts of actions you can take to make sure this doesn't happen.
Things You Can Do Sitting at Your Computer: You can reach more people in 15 minutes online than any other way. You can even do it while drinking a beer. Update your status message on Facebook and Gmail and Twitter to "Approve Referendum 71." You can also post the link to Approve71 .org. Tweet about it and repeat the Facebook message regularly. Next, change your primary image on Facebook to the "Approve R-71" icon, which you can get at the website. Lots of people are already doing this. Be one of them.
In your e-mail, change the signature line in your messages to include the info mentioned above, such as "Did you know lots of young voters skip off-year elections? Don't be one of them—vote to approve R-71." Then give them a link. Hell, send them a link to this article.
Sign up for e-mails on the Approve71.org website and then forward the e-mails—especially to your friends and family who live in the suburbs and the sticks. "We don't need to go far from Seattle to win, geographically," says Murray. Then when new e-mails come, forward those, too.
Donate money to the campaign at Approve71.org. The campaign needs about $800,000 more to cover the airwaves, pay for signs, and do everything a campaign needs to win, Friedes says.
Things You Can Do with Hot Volunteers: "The slightly more labor-intensive but perhaps even more fun activity is coming to our phone banks," says Friedes. The Approve R-71 headquarters is downtown, near bars. Sign up at the website. "We have identified hundreds of thousands of voters who we believe are with us but may not vote because it is an off-year election. We need to have conversations with those voters to make sure they know how high the stakes are." Later on in the campaign, you can hang out with hot homos and straight allies, and wave signs. You might even get a date.
Things You Can Do While You're Doing Other Things: Talk to people about R-71 in your day-to-day conversations. It may seem dull explaining the same thing over and over, but it's better than small talk. You can even don the dreaded campaign button.
Think it sounds too embarrassing and awkward to hang your neck out there like an activist clown? You don't want to bug your friends or be that person who's all wigged out over some cause. Am I right?
"I don't know how to put this," says Friedes, pausing. "People who are uncomfortable with taking action now because they don't perceive themselves as advocates or political will feel a lot worse come Election Day if we lose this by a narrow margin," he says.
"We need to stretch beyond our comfort zones and do more than we ever have," adds Friedes. "That's the only way progress has ever been made in any civil-rights struggle."
In Washington State, we have three paths toward marriage equality: through the courts, through the legislature, and by public vote. In 2006, the Washington State Supreme Court upheld the state's ban on same-sex marriage, removing the courts as an option. The legislature has passed the most progressive bill it can (first it created the domestic-partnership registry in 2007, then it added some more rights in 2008, and this year it added everything except the word marriage). "It is very difficult to get the legislature to pass what the people have voted down in the ballot," Murray says. So if R-71 loses at the polls, it essentially halts the cause of gay civil rights in the legislature and by public vote, effectively blocking all three paths to gay equality in Washington State.
Don't let R-71 get rejected. Your conversations about it—more than just increasing its chances—also advance the entire marriage-equality debate. Polling by the University of Washington shows support for full marriage equality jumped 7 percent from 2006 to 2008, the years Washington passed gay-civil-rights and domestic-partnership bills. The conversation this election season, as long as R-71 is approved, could bring marriage equality about sooner. And when election night comes and R-71 passes, you'll be able to say that you helped protect and advance gay rights in Washington.