TALLAHASSEE — A measure to ban gay marriage and gay civil unions in Florida's state Constitution was all but assured of passage, according to election reports rolling in late Tuesday evening.
Florida voters limited marriage between a man and a woman, but they also banned legal unions and their "substantial equivalent," which could raise a question of whether public employers, like community colleges and the city of Tampa, can continue offering health care benefits to domestic partners. It would be up to courts to decide.
With most counties reporting at midnight, 62 percent of Floridians voted in favor of banning gay marriage. It takes 60 percent of voters to change Florida's Constitution. Florida was one of three states nationwide where voters considered banning gay marriage in their constitutions; Arizona and California results had yet to be reported by 10 p.m.
"It's really a remarkable victory — we're thrilled," said lawyer John Stemberger, who ran the campaign Florida4Marriage, the group that sponsored the ballot measure.
Stemberger pointed out that many Floridians voted both for the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, and the gay marriage ban. Obama opposed the amendment. But Stemberger said he believed they won strong support from African Americans and Hispanics.
"Obviously, having a robust African-American turnout was helpful," he said.
Gov. Charlie Crist voted yes Tuesday on Amendment 2, which seeks to define marriage in the Florida's Constitution as a union between a man and a woman. "I voted for it," Crist said outside the polling place. "It's what I believe in."
Those who fought Amendment 2, including the group Florida Red and Blue, conceded the race close to midnight, although some parts of South Florida counties had yet to fully report.
"We worked hard to educate voters about what could be the dangerous fallout from Amendment 2," said Jon Kislak, the group's chairman. "But it proved to be a complex and nuanced argument."
The fight over the gay marriage ban was also one of the priciest this election season, with supporters raising nearly $2-million, including in-kind contributions, which was spent on advertising. Opponents raised $3.3-million. The fight even landed briefly in court, when opponents tried to force Florida4Marriage to disclose some of its "in-kind" donors, but the judge refused to force disclosure on an election eve.
While gay marriage dominated the attention, voters also weighed in on five other proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution. Three appeared to be passing and two were failing late Thursday night.
Most significantly, voters were set to approve Amendment 4, a proposal to eliminate or greatly reduce property taxes for landowners who set aside their land for conservation purposes.
Crist and a wide coalition of environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, backed it. Critics, including some rural county officials, worried that millions in tax dollars would be removed from tax rolls for local government.
Voters opposed Amendment 1, a measure that would have deleted older language from the state Constitution from the 1920s that had allowed the Legislature to prevent aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning property. However, the Legislature never enacted a law to enforce this.
Amendment 3, a measure to give modest property tax breaks to homeowners who either harden their homes against hurricanes or make homes more energy-efficient, was poised to pass. The tax savings could be minimal, an estimated $15 for each of the 225,370 homeowners who would likely qualify in the first year, according to a state analysis. But it could help bring lower insurance premiums and lower utility bills.
Voters overwhelmingly approved another measure, Amendment 6, to give property tax breaks to marinas, commercial fishing facilities and other "working waterfront" businesses, that can now be assessed at their current use rather than the best potential use.
Waterfront business owners have long complained that their taxes are skyrocketing because property appraisers value the land on its "highest and best" use, not its current use.
Voters rejected a measure, Amendment 8, that would have allowed community colleges to petition their local voters for a sales tax to supplement funding.
Early Tuesday, several hundred voters in Hillsborough County didn't get the second page of their ballots, meaning they couldn't vote on tax breaks for working waterfronts or the sales tax option for community colleges, according to election officials, poll watchers and voters.