Everyone knows by now that same-sex marriage in Washington state was affirmed by popular vote — but the vote was a lot more popular in some parts of the state than others. Most Puget Sound counties voted in favor of gay marriage, while the rest of the state voted against it. The geographic divide is abundantly clear on the Washington Secretary of State’s Ref. 74 results map.
And yet, there’s something funny about this map. Way over on the eastern edge of the state, amid a vast sea of yellow rejection, a lone patch of green approval stands out. What is that place?
Meet Whitman County.
So why there? Ref. 74 went down in flames in the rest of Eastern Washington. What’s different about Whitman County?
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Now, just to be clear, I make no pretense of being an expert on Whitman County. I’ve never even been there. But after looking over a lot of data, I do have some thoughts as to why Whitman County approved Ref. 74. It really boils down to one word: demographics. Whitman County’s demographics set it apart from the surrounding areas.
These are the two key demographic factors that I feel might have made the biggest difference:
- Education: Washington State University, with 20,000 students and 4,000 employees, is a dominant presence in Whitman County, which has a total population of only about 47,000. Not only does the county have the highest percentage of college students in the state, its population as a whole is among the best educated; for the population age 25 and up, Whitman has the third highest percentage of college graduates and the highest percentage of people with advanced degrees of any county in the Washington. This is demographically significant because there is a strong correlation between educational attainment and acceptance of gay marriage, as the Pew Research Center has demonstrated.
- Age: With so many college students, it isn’t surprising that Whitman County has the lowest median age in the state — just 24.8. As a point of comparison, the statewide median age is 37.2. This is important in regard to Ref. 74 because young people are much more comfortable with gay marriage than older people, as numerous surveys have demonstrated. For example, a Gallup poll from earlier this year showed support for gay marriage among people ages 18-34 at 66 percent. For older groups, it was less than 50 percent. And because so many of the young people in Whitman County are in college, it’s more likely they turned out to vote; according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 69 percent of college students planned to vote in the 2012 presidential election, 20 points higher than young people who were not enrolled in college.
I don’t mean to imply that WSU is the only thing in Whitman County. It certainly is not. But it’s a large school in a sparsely populated county, so it exerts a strong influence. It also draws people from around and outside the state, who might be less socially conservative on average. Whitman County’s unique demographics — young and educated — are very possibly what tipped the scales in favor of gay marriage. If that is in fact the reason, it was just enough to help Ref. 74 squeak by there, and I really mean squeak by: it won by a 76-vote margin.