By Rachel La Corte
The Associated Press
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With about half the expected ballots counted Tuesday night, Referendum 74 was passing with 52 percent of the vote. Counties were expected to post additional vote results Wednesday afternoon.
The measure asked Washingtonians to approve or reject a state law legalizing same-sex marriage that lawmakers passed earlier this year. That law was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire but has been on hold pending the election's outcome.
Election parties in Seattle spilled out into the streets in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where police closed off several blocks for an outdoor election celebration of President Barack Obama's re-election, and where more than 1,000 people were dancing and chanting “74, 74, 74.”
The measure was losing in 31 of the state's 39 counties. But it had its strongest lead — 65 percent of the vote — in King County, the state's largest county and home to Seattle.
State Sen. Ed Murray, a Democratic gay lawmaker from Seattle who sponsored the marriage law that passed the Legislature, said he felt confident that Washington state's numbers would hold.
“We're almost there, and we should celebrate,” he said.
About $13.6 million was spent on the campaign in Washington state, with the bulk of it coming from gay marriage supporters. Washington United for Marriage far outraised its opponents, bringing in more than $12 million compared to the $2.7 million raised by Preserve Marriage Washington, which opposes the law.
“We remain cautiously optimistic that when all the ballots are in that the voters of Washington will not redefine marriage,” said Chip White, a Preserve Marriage spokesman. “We don't need to win King County to win the state. There's still a path to victory for us.”
Meanwhile, Maine's measure passed Tuesday night with 54 percent of the vote.
The measure that passed in Maryland matched Washington state's lead of 52-48 percent.
In Minnesota, voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in their state. Gay marriage remains illegal under Minnesota state law.
Murray said that the big wins for gay marriage supporters across the country signaled a bigger moment.
“As a country and a culture we've changed,” he said. “People understand that gay and lesbian people are their neighbors, their relatives, the people who sit next to them in church. I think what you saw in these four states is going to help sweep the nation.”
In Washington, preliminary results from exit polling data showed there were political and religious divides among voters over the measure — with just one in five Republicans backing it, compared with more than eight in 10 Democrats and a majority of independents.
Those who attend weekly church services were more strongly opposed to gay marriage. Just one-quarter of weekly churchgoers backed the legalization of same-sex marriage, while four out of five voters who never attend church favored it. A majority of married women supported R-74, but married men broke against it.
Voters in Eastern Washington tied on the issue.
The survey of Washington state voters was conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Research.
It included preliminary results from a survey of 1,493 voters who voted early or absentee and were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Oct. 29 through Nov. 4. Results for the full sample were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.
The road to gay marriage in Washington state began several years ago.
A year after the state's gay marriage ban was upheld by the state Supreme Court, the state's first domestic partnership law passed in 2007, granting couples about two dozen rights, including hospital visitation and inheritance rights when there is no will.
It was expanded a year later, and then again in 2009, when lawmakers completed the package with the so-called “everything but marriage” bill that was ultimately upheld by voters later that same year.
This year, lawmakers passed the law allowing gay marriage, and Gregoire signed it in February. Preserve Marriage gathered enough signatures for a referendum, and the law never took effect, instead remaining on hold pending the election.
If voters uphold the law, gay couples could start picking up their marriage certificates and licenses from county auditor offices Dec. 6, a day after the election is certified. However, because Washington state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest the certificate could be signed, making the marriage valid, is Dec. 9.
The law doesn't require religious organizations or churches to perform marriages, and doesn't subject churches to penalties if they don't marry gay or lesbian couples.
Maine and Maryland join six other states — New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont — and the District of Columbia in allowing gay marriage. But unlike the others, they were the first to enact the law by public vote. The other states either enacted laws or issued court rulings that permit same-sex marriage.