By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Anchorage voters have rejected a ballot initiative that would have protected gays from discrimination in the latest setback to a decades-long campaign to secure anti-discrimination rights for gays in Alaska's most populous city.
A preliminary count from municipal officials on Wednesday, a day after the vote, indicated that 58 percent of voters cast their ballots against the initiative, known as Proposition 5.
The initiative would have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in everything from employment to housing. The city's existing equal-rights protections cover such characteristics as race, gender, religion and disability.
Gay rights activists have been pushing for legal discrimination protections since 1976, when Mayor George Sullivan vetoed a city ordinance that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
A similar ordinance was again vetoed in 2009, this time by Mayor Dan Sullivan - George Sullivan's son. The younger Sullivan was re-elected on Tuesday with 59 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results.
Republicans outnumber Democrats in Anchorage, an ethnically mixed city of close to 300,000 people. But socially conservative causes rarely take hold in the city, which has an annual gay pride parade and a smattering of prominent gay residents.
More than 54,400 votes had been counted, with just 7,000 ballots remaining, Anchorage Municipal Clerk Barbara Gruenstein said. Unexpectedly high turnout resulted in a shortage of ballots at several precincts, and sample ballots that were employed will have to be verified and counted by hand, she said.
"We've never experienced anything like this," Gruenstein said.
The group behind the ballot measure, One Anchorage, said more than 150 municipal governments in the United States have non-discrimination protections for gays.
The initiative results were substantially different from pre-election polling that showed the measure passing by a 9-point margin, said Matt Larkin, owner of Dittman Research, an Anchorage-based polling and political consulting company.
His company predicted that the vote would be close. "Obviously, it wasn't," he said. "I think what's clear is that there was some significant movement on Prop 5 in the last 10 days."
Larkin said he believed there was a major get-out-the-vote campaign conducted by initiative opponents and possibly backlash to a campaign tactic used by Sullivan challenger Paul Honeman, who tied himself to the initiative and implicitly criticized pro-Sullivan voters.
"He started running some ads that said, essentially, `Don't be a dummy and vote for my opponent,'" Larkin said. Instead of diminishing support for Sullivan, an incumbent with high approval ratings, Honeman wound up diminishing support for the initiative, Larkin said.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Jackie Frank)