Alaska editorial: Advisory vote only pointed out divisions

Posted: Monday, April 16, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

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This was not the convincing message that supporters had hoped for.

In fact, the message from the statewide advisory vote was convincingly unconvincing.

Just under 56,400 people decided that, yes, it would be good if the Legislature put on the November 2008 ballot a proposed constitutional amendment to bar the state and other political subdivisions from granting employment benefits to the same-sex partners of public employees and public employee retirees.

But the message of those voters was neither loud nor clear. That's because the number of people voting against the proposal wasn't too far behind, at just under 49,300.

The one clear item from the vote totals is that the victorious backers of the measure have no mandate to press ahead with their cause.

A victory margin of 6.7 percentage points can't be claimed as a resounding directive from the people, though it surely is enough to keep the ballot measure's legislative backers pressing ahead with their proposed constitutional amendment.

The ballot measure's proponents, chiefly Republican Rep. John Coghill of North Pole with strong support from Rep. Mike Kelly of Fairbanks, pressed for the measure in the hopes that the result would then sway additional legislators to their side so that they can put the proposed amendment on the 2008 ballot.

Getting it on the ballot requires a two-thirds vote by each legislative chamber, and Rep. Coghill and Co. knew long ago that they were short of the total.

But a margin as slim as that on April 3 hardly provides the leverage the vote's architects hoped it would. If anything, the opponents of a constitutional amendment might actually have gained strength by the size of their no vote, which, in percentage, is much larger than the no vote cast against the successful 1998 constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. In that vote, 68 percent of voters said yes and 32 percent said no.

The crafters of the advisory vote saw their measure as a necessary extension of the 1998 amendment, which they say was disregarded by activist state Supreme Court justices who ruled that employment benefits must be offered to the same-sex partners of public employees and public retirees.

And the results of the $1.2 million election? People on each side are spinning them in a way most favorable to them.

And that's the problem. The vote provided no guidance, except to say that Alaskans are divided on the topic.

So here we are, back where we started.

Finding a solution to this contentious dispute is the responsibility of the Legislature and the governor. Legislators who see a problem with the current benefits situation need to have the guts to vote on a solution, be it a proposed amendment or some other device, without looking for political protection from the public.

And Gov. Sarah Palin needs to show some leadership on this issue, too. She danced around the topic recently by saying through her spokeswoman that she believed it would be inappropriate to advise Alaskans how to vote.

With the vote now passed, the governor should be clear about her beliefs and ideas. She signed the measure authorizing the special election, after all.

The benefits issue is a divisive issue, touching as it does on deeply held beliefs about family. But Alaskans have sent 40 representatives, 20 senators and one governor to Juneau to resolve disputes such as this.

So we say this to the state's leaders: Work on it and be done with it, for Alaska has many other important issues awaiting attention.

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