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After a special election this November, Iowans may find a challenge to the state’s legal gay marriage back on the ballot.
State Sen. Swati Dandekar, a Democrat from Linn County, resigned late last week after Republican Gov. Terry Branstad offered her a position on the Iowa Utilities Board. Her seat will be filled in a special election on Nov. 8.
Left in balance is the current Democratic majority, and with it the dominance of Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal.
Gronstal has proven himself an adamant defender of Democratic values in a state government otherwise dominated by Republicans, effectively vetoing House measures, including collective bargaining restrictions and some of the most stringent abortion limitations in the nation, by refusing to bring them to the floor for a vote.
Gronstal has also promised to block a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. Despite active lobbying by LGBT Iowans and their families, the Iowa Marriage Amendment passed the Iowa House in March 62-37—but failed to make it out of committee, with Gronstal stating outright that he would refuse to place it on the agenda.
Iowa politicos have speculated that the appointment by Branstad was, at least in part, an effort to break up the logjam in the Iowa Legislature.
If Democrats lose Dandekar’s district, which has more registered Republicans than Democrats, the Iowa Senate would be evenly split.
Following precedent, Republicans and Democrats might alternate weekly to set the agenda for votes; in any case, the Democrats would lose their grip on the legislative process. Gronstal and the Senate Committee chairmen would no longer be able to bar the conservative agenda set by Branstad and Iowa House Republicans.
There are no numbers on whether a Senate vote would pass the Iowa Marriage Amendment. If ratified, the amendment would ban the state from recognizing legal unions other than the marriage of one man and one woman, ending two years of same-sex marriage in Iowa. The state legalized gay marriage following a unanimous 2009 ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court, which stated that a previous same-sex marriage ban did not serve “any important governmental objective.”
There has already been some backlash over the ruling: Last year, three of the Supreme Court justices were not retained by voters, ousted primarily over their support of same-sex marriage.
But before gay marriage could be banned, the ratification process in Iowa is long. Two consecutive legislatures must approve the amendment, which is then subject to a popular vote—which, with Dandekar’s resignation, could occur as early as 2014.
Conservatives have been framing this popular vote as a matter of democratic principle, but it’s uncertain whether a public vote would write discrimination into Iowa’s constitution.
A Des Moines Register poll earlier this year found that 38 percent of Iowans would vote against the amendment, while 35 percent would vote for it—within the 3.5 percent margin of error. And the time it would take for the amendment to pass in Des Moines would give gay marriage the edge: The trend of support for same-sex marriage has been distinctly positive.
It may not directly lead to the end of gay marriage in Iowa, but Dandekar’s resignation jeopardizes the Democratic majority in the Iowa Senate, bringing Iowa one step closer to a popular vote on minority rights.
Democratic and LGBT rights groups are calling for donations and volunteer efforts to help register new voters and turn out Democratic supporters, an admittedly difficult task in an off-year.
Nov. 8 may lead to a radically more conservative Iowa, or it could keep the delicate balance in the state’s capital intact.
It’s all up to Cedar Rapids voters.
Shay O'Reilly is a staff writer with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.