53% of Voters Say They Back Va. Same-Sex Marriage Ban

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By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A majority of Virginians support a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions, although voters split on the measure when presented with interpretations of its potential impact, according to a new Washington Post poll.

Fifty-three percent of likely voters said they would vote for the amendment, and 43 percent would oppose it, the poll found, indicating that three weeks before Election Day opponents still have a long way to go to make Virginia the first state in the country to defeat a same-sex marriage amendment.

The only part of the state to oppose the measure was Northern Virginia, where voters rejected it 55 percent to 42 percent, further evidence that the Washington suburbs have become a political and social world apart from the rest of Virginia. Respondents in the rest of the state backed the measure 58 percent to 38 percent, according to the survey, conducted over three days last week.

Despite the overall results, the poll provided some hope for opponents of the measure. Their chief argument is that the language of the amendment is too broad and would endanger contracts between unwed heterosexual couples. Supporters contend that the measure is limited to declaring that same-sex marriages would never be approved or recognized in Virginia.

When respondents were read the arguments on both sides of the question, enough voters showed a willingness to reconsider that the gap narrowed to a virtual tie -- 48 percent said they supported the measure and 47 percent opposed it, within the poll's margin of error of three percentage points.

"I really do think that we need an amendment like this that defines marriage," said Ross Williams, 50, a salesman from Annandale, who considers himself a Republican and a likely voter for Sen. George Allen (R) in his reelection bid Nov. 7. "But we don't need to pass something that we don't know what it's going to do. I wouldn't call myself an undecided voter yet . . . but I am going to read the wording and make up my mind about what it's going to do before I vote."

The poll also found that Virginians are virtually split over whether gay couples should be able to form civil unions, which would give them health insurance, inheritance benefits and other legal rights of married couples. The poll found that 48 percent believe gay couples should be allowed to engage in civil unions and 47 percent do not. The amendment would constitutionally ban civil unions between gay couples, although they are already illegal in Virginia.

"We've been seeing this for a long time now: When people read the entire question and think about what it means, they vote no," said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, campaign director for the Commonwealth Coalition, the group organizing opposition to the amendment.

Victoria Cobb, executive director of the Family Foundation, said that she believed the amendment would pass and that voters understood that the ballot question was simply about defining marriage. She said an internal poll conducted by the group found strong support for the measure.

"We are very confident that Virginia is going to join the other 20 states that have passed constitutional amendments," she said. "Virginians know this is about marriage between one man and one woman, and we have complete confidence that when they step into the voting booth, they will vote for traditional marriage."

Several political scientists who have studied state ballot measures said the polling data from Virginia appeared to defy expectations, given the commonwealth's reputation as a conservative state.

"This is quite a surprise," said Daniel A. Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. "In an ostensibly conservative state like Virginia, you'd expect to see the numbers up around 60 or 70 percent."


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