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Political Smell Test: R-74 won’t affect elderly straight couples’ benefits

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Oct. 22, 2012 at 4:19 pm with No Comments »
October 22, 2012 4:50 pm

THE CLAIMS: A campaign mail piece urging support of Washington’s same-sex marriage referendum ties the measure to domestic partnerships for the elderly.

“Why do seniors need the protection of domestic partnerships?” the mailer from Washington United for Marriage asks, and then answers: “Because of a Social Security ‘marriage penalty,’ many seniors would lose hard-earned health care, military or pension benefits if they re-marry, or have to pay higher taxes on their Social Security benefits.

“Approving REFERENDUM 74 allows any seniors age 62 or older to have a domestic partnership if marrying would cause them to lose their retirement or other benefits.”

It goes on: “By voting to APPROVE REFERENDUM 74 , you will vote to preserve domestic partnerships for seniors, and ensure that all loving and committed couples have the freedom to marry.”

The campaign says the statements are consistent with the official ballot title, text of which is also included in the mailer. ”We’re just trying to explain to seniors that they will still be able to have domestic partnerships, that they will be preserved,” said David Ward, an attorney for Legal Voice who works with Washington United for Marriage.

Gay-marriage opponents said in a news release the campaign is “trying to trick seniors” with the mailer. “We are appalled at this outrageous scare tactic that preys on the fears of senior citizens,” said the spokesman for Preserve Marriage Washington, Chip White.

THE FACTS: It turns out that no one disputes the basic facts here: Whether R-74 succeeds or fails, older couples will still be able to join together in domestic partnerships.

That’s existing law, and it’s not up for a vote.

When the Legislature created domestic partnerships for same-sex couples in 2007, it also allowed them for heterosexual couples that included at least one partner 62 or older. Subsequent expansions gave partners all the rights of marriage under state law.

If voters uphold the Legislature’s latest act and approve R-74, it will give legal recognition to same-sex marriage. It will also convert same-sex domestic partnerships for younger people into marriages, with the option for the couples to dissolve their partnerships if they prefer. But partnerships for seniors — both homosexual and heterosexual — will stay intact, and will remain available to new couples.

The campaign says it’s just trying to drive home those points. Ward points to the ballot title, written by a judge, that says R-74 would “preserve domestic partnerships only for seniors.”

That phrase in the title is presumably meant to reflect that R-74 would eliminate domestic partnerships for younger people, while not affecting seniors.

But it’s not accurate to say R-74 “allows” seniors to have domestic partnerships, as the mailer says — any more than opponents would be justified if they said rejecting R-74 “allows” seniors to have domestic partnerships.

(As an aside: We’ve looked into questionable claims about what laws “allow” before.)

The mailer never says directly that protections for seniors are threatened if R-74 fails. But that’s the implication when the ad urges voters to approve R-74 because “seniors need the protection of domestic partnerships” and because “approving Referendum 74 allows any seniors age 62 or older to have a domestic partnership.”

THE BOTTOM LINE: This election won’t change domestic partnerships for senior citizens. The mailer is misleading.

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