Washington voters approve same-sex marriage, legalize recreational marijuana, and support re-election of President Barack Obama on November 6, 2012.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/08/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10294
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In the election of November 6, 2012, Washington voters make history as the state becomes one of the first three to enact marriage equality by popular vote, and one of two to legalize recreational marijuana use by adults. President Barack Obama (b. 1961) wins the state by a wide margin on his way to re-election over Republican challenger Mitt Romney (b. 1947). Democratic U.S. Representative Jay Inslee (b. 1951) defeats Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna (b. 1962) to win the governor's mansion vacated after two terms by Democrat Chris Gregoire (b. 1947). Democratic U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (b. 1958) wins a third term by a landslide, seven incumbents are easily re-elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and Democrats Suzan DelBene (b. 1962), Derek Kilmer (b. 1974), and Denny Heck (b. 1952) win the state's three open U.S. House seats.

Marriage Equality 

Washington was not the first state to recognize marriage between partners of the same sex. But before 2012, states' decisions to allow same-sex marriage had been made by legislators or judges, not by voters. Washington looked set to follow that pattern when, in early 2012, the state legislature passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage. However, opponents gathered sufficient signatures to send the bill to the ballot, as Referendum 74, blocking the law's implementation unless voters approved it.

In doing so, they sought to extend a years-long, nationwide winning streak. Not only had marriage equality never prevailed in a statewide vote, but also more than half the states had adopted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, often by large margins and in some cases, notably in California, reversing court or legislative decisions to approve marriage equality. Only once in U.S. history had any gay-rights measure succeeded in a statewide vote, and that came in Washington, where voters in 2009 approved Referendum 71, the "everything but marriage" bill passed by the state legislature, which expanded domestic partnership benefits for same-sex (and older unmarried heterosexual) couples.

Given this background, the 2012 election was a watershed moment in the long movement for marriage equality. Measures to recognize same-sex marriage appeared on the ballot in three states -- in Maryland, as in Washington, a law passed by the legislature was subjected to voter approval or rejection, and in Maine (where three years earlier voters had rejected a same-sex marriage law enacted by the legislature), marriage equality supporters placed the matter before voters via initiative. In addition, a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was on the ballot in Minnesota. In a complete reversal of past results, marriage equality prevailed across the board: Minnesota voters rejected the ban, and those in Maine, Maryland, and Washington passed same-sex marriage into law.

Due in large part to the fact that Washington's election was conducted entirely by mail, with ballots only required to be post-marked by election day, Washington was the last of the three states to certify its same-sex marriage measure's victory. When all the votes were counted, Referendum 74 passed with 53.7 percent of the vote statewide, as a huge (67 percent) yes vote in populous King County more than made up for the fact that the measure was rejected in 29 of the state's 39 counties. That margin of victory was slightly higher than in Maine or Maryland. And Washington's new law took effect earlier than the other two, so the first same-sex marriages in the United States under a law approved by voters took place in Washington.

Marijuana Legalization  

Marriage equality was not the only contested social issue on which Washington voters made history in the 2012 election. Washington was also one of three states, along with Colorado and Oregon, where voters considered initiative measures that would make it legal, under state law, for adults to possess small quantities of marijuana for any purpose. Three other states considered measures allowing marijuana for medical purposes, which all three states considering the broader measures already permitted -- Washington voters had authorized medical marijuana under state law in 1998.

The 2012 ballot measure, Initiative 502, revised Washington law to make it legal for adults over the age of 21 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, required the state to set up a licensing system for growing and selling marijuana (with cultivation and distribution, unless under the medical exception, remaining illegal until establishment of the licensing system), and, in an effort to respond to concerns over legalization, tightened prohibitions on driving under the influence of marijuana. The measure did not seek to, nor could it, alter federal law under which marijuana, even for medical use, remained illegal.

In a sign of broad support for liberalizing the state's marijuana law, the lead sponsor of I-502 was Republican former United States Attorney John McKay. Other former and current law enforcement officials, and many more political, civic, and business leaders, also favored the measure, which ironically drew some of its strongest opposition from the medical marijuana industry.

In Washington, marijuana legalization won slightly more support than did same-sex marriage; I-502 gained 55.7 percent of the vote statewide, and prevailed in 20 counties. Nationwide, however, results on marijuana were more mixed than the sweep in favor of marriage equality. Colorado voters also passed a measure legalizing recreational use of marijuana, but voters in Oregon defeated a similar measure; medical marijuana was approved in Massachusetts but rejected in Arkansas.

Other Measures

Washington voters also approved initiatives restricting tax increases and authorizing charter schools. Initiative 1185, sponsored by professional initiative promoter Tim Eyman, reiterated a requirement -- previously enacted by earlier Eyman initiatives -- for either a two-thirds vote in the legislature, or else voter approval, to raise taxes. Eyman argued that a new measure was needed because after two years the legislature can modify a law passed by initiative, and it had suspended an earlier two-thirds requirement. Voters evidently agreed, approving I-1185 with 63.9 percent of the vote.

Initiative 1240, which for the first time in Washington allowed charter schools -- publicly funded schools run by private non-profit organizations, and not subject to many regulations governing other public schools -- passed by a much smaller margin with 50.7 percent of the vote. The narrow win came in charter school advocates' fourth attempt -- state voters rejected charter school measures in 2004, 2000, and 1996.

More Voters, More Representatives 

Barack Obama carried Washington with 56.2 percent of the votes to Mitt Romney's 41.3 percent, a margin only slightly lower than he won the state by four years earlier. And despite an economy that struggled throughout his first term, which appeared to leave the president vulnerable, Obama won both the national popular vote and the electoral college handily, although with nationwide voter turnout down significantly from 2008, he did not match his record-setting popular vote total from that year.

Turnout as a percentage of all registered voters also dropped slightly in Washington, to 81.2 percent from the all-time high of 84.6 percent recorded in 2008. However, with the state's population increasing steadily, the absolute number of voters casting ballots was higher than ever. Indeed, Washington's population growth recorded in the 2010 federal census entitled the state to an additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the redistricting that follows each decennial census, increasing the number of the state's congressional districts from nine to 10. That in turn raised the number of electoral votes that Washington cast for Obama from 11 in 2008 to 12 in 2012 (each state's electoral votes equal the number of its representatives plus its two senators).

Prior to the election, the bipartisan Washington State Redistricting Commission redrew the map of the state's congressional districts, carving out a new Tenth District centered around Olympia in the South Puget Sound region. The new district favored Democrats, and Denny Heck, a Democratic state representative and former chief of staff to Governor Booth Gardner (b. 1936), easily won the seat.

Congressional Races 

The Tenth District was not the only open House seat in the 2012 election. In the Sixth District, encompassing the Olympic Peninsula, Democrat Norm Dicks (b. 1940), who had served in Congress for 36 years, longer than any other current member of the state's delegation, announced he would retire at the end of his term. State senator Derek Kilmer captured the Democratic nomination without opposition and cruised to victory in the November general election.

The most contentious congressional race came in the First District, where Jay Inslee stepped down during the term to concentrate on his race for governor. Suzan DelBene, a former Microsoft executive who entered politics two years earlier with an unsuccessful challenge to Eighth District U.S. Representative Dave Reichert (b. 1950) and then directed the state Department of Revenue, defeated fellow Democrats Darcy Burner (who had also lost, twice, to Reichert) and Laura Ruderman in an often-bitter primary. Snohomish County Councilmember John Koster, who had failed in two challenges to Second District Representative Rick Larsen (b. 1965), won the Republican nomination. DelBene prevailed in both the old First District (much of Kitsap County and portions of northwest King and southwest Snohomish counties), winning the remaining few weeks of Inslee's term, and in the newly redrawn district (stretching from northern King County through much of Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom counties to the Canadian border).

There was little suspense in the other House races as all seven incumbents who sought re-election won by wide margins: Larsen in the Second District, Reichert in the Eighth, along with Republicans Jaime Herrera Beutler (b. 1978) in the Third District, Doc Hastings (b. 1941) in the Fourth, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (b. 1969) in the Fifth, and Democrats Jim McDermott (b. 1936) in the Seventh and Adam Smith (b. 1965) in the Ninth. Like her House colleagues, Senator Maria Cantwell won re-election handily, defeating little-known state senator Michael Baumgartner with more than 60 percent of the vote.

State Contests 

Rob McKenna, the popular two-term state Attorney General, was considered the Republicans' best chance in years to retake the governor's mansion that the party last won in 1980. But Inslee, boosted by landslide margins in King County, prevailed by 51.5 to 48.5 percent. Inslee led a nearly complete Democratic sweep of statewide offices. Democratic King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson defeated fellow councilmember Reagan Dunn to succeed McKenna as Attorney General, and Democrats won all the other partisan state offices except one. Republican Kim Wyman narrowly defeated former state senator Kathleen Drew for the Secretary of State position from which Sam Reed retired after three terms, extending a Republican winning streak two decades longer than the Democrats' gubernatorial stranglehold -- the last Democratic Secretary of State was elected in 1960.

In the election Democrats also appeared to retain their control of both houses of the state legislature. The results gave the party a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives, while 26 Democratic state senators were elected to 23 Republican senators. However, a month after the election two senators elected as Democrats announced that they would caucus with the Republicans to form a new majority, ending Democratic control of the senate.


"November 06, 2012 General Election Results," Washington Secretary of State website accessed January 6, 2013 (http://vote.wa.gov/results/20121106/); "August 07, 2012 Primary Results," Washington Secretary of State website accessed January 6, 2013 (http://vote.wa.gov/results/20120807/); "November 6, 2012 General Election Results," King County Elections website accessed January 7, 2013 (http://your.kingcounty.gov/elections/2012nov-general/results/); Chris Grygiel, "Panel Approves Redistricting Maps: New 10th District," The Seattle Times, January 2, 2012, p. B-4; David Lightman, "Battleground Victor: Obama Wins Most of Key States Both Campaigns Targeted," Ibid., November 7, 2012, p. A-3; Lornet Turnbull, "Ref. 74 Passing: Washington Voters Making History, Nights Returns Indicate," Ibid., p. A-5; Andrew Garber, "Two-thirds-vote Rule Wins Handily," Ibid.; Jonathan Martin, "Pot's Legal: State Makes History as Voters Approve I-502," Ibid., p. A-6; Linda Shaw, "Charter Schools Leading Slightly," Ibid.; Steve Miletich, "As Expected, Sen. Cantwell Breezes to a Third Term," Ibid., p. A-7; Emily Hefter, "DelBene Beats Koster in Race for U.S. House," Ibid.; Melissa Allison, "Kilmer Wins in 6th District," Ibid.; "Voter Turnout Appears Less Than in 2008," Ibid., p. A-12; Sandi Doughton, "GOP Keeps Secretary of State with Kim Wyman's Victory," Ibid. November 11, 2012, p. B-1; Carol M. Ostrom and Brian M. Rosenthal, "Changes in Senate May Affect Moves on Health Care," Ibid., December 28, 2012, p. B-1; "2012 Presidential General Election Results," Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections website accessed January 8, 2013 (http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/); "Timeline: Gay Marriage Chronology," Los Angeles Times website accessed January 7, 2013 (http://graphics.latimes.com/usmap-gay-marriage-chronology/); "Tabulations for Elections held in 2012," State of Maine, Department of the Secretary of State website accessed January 7, 2013 (http://www.maine.gov/sos/cec/elec/prior12-13.htm#nov); "Official 2012 Presidential General Election results for All State Questions," Maryland State Board of Elections website accessed January 7, 2013 (http://www.elections.state.md.us/elections/2012/results/general/gen_qresults_2012 _4_00_1.html).

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