Gay Marriage Again on Ballot in Maine

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AUGUSTA, Me. -- Three years after voters in Maine rejected same-sex marriage, they will consider the matter again in November. This time, advocates say they have reason for optimism.

They point to a shift in public opinion, the personal support for same-sex marriage voiced last month by President Obama and what they believe is an effective door-to-door "persuasion" campaign throughout the state.

In addition, the vote will take place in a presidential election year, when more young people, who overwhelmingly support gay marriage, are likely to turn out than in an off year.

Maine is the only state where supporters of same-sex marriage have put such an initiative on the ballot. Whenever the matter has gone to voters before, including here in 2009, it has been driven by opponents; this time, it was proponents who put the issue on the ballot, and they have spent more than two years organizing.

"This is the first time people are having the opportunity to vote yes for equality, as opposed to no," said Lee Swislow, executive director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a legal rights organization. "We would not have gone forward in Maine and submitted the signatures if we didn't feel we had a good shot at winning."

But the weight of history is against them. The fight has never been won at the ballot box. In states where same-sex marriage is legal now -- Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, as well as in the District of Columbia -- it has been made possible through court rulings or legislative action. In the 32 states, including California, in which voters have had a say, they have rejected it.

In November, voters in four states will weigh in on same-sex marriage. There is a chance that in three it could become law; besides the initiative in Maine, voters in Maryland and Washington State will decide whether to repeal same-sex marriage laws recently passed in those states. In the fourth, Minnesota, voters will consider whether to amend the state Constitution to ban it.

The loss in Maine in 2009 was a heartbreak for the movement. The Legislature had legalized it and the governor, John Baldacci, a Democrat, had signed it into law. But opponents forced it to a referendum, and the public voted to repeal it, 53 to 47 percent, a difference of about 30,000 votes.

That was a surprise because polls at the time indicated that a majority of voters would approve it. And therein lies the hope of the opposition here this year; while state and national polls suggest that a majority supports same-sex marriage, voters have not always told pollsters the truth.

"I'll be surprised if we don't win," said Carroll Conley Jr., executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine and a board member of Protect Marriage Maine, a group leading the opposition.

"When it's framed as 'Should people be able to marry regardless of sexual orientation?' you see a significant change from five years ago," he said. "But if you ask, 'Should marriage be defined as one man, one women?' we don't see significant changes."

The proposed wording of the ballot question here is, "Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?" But proponents want it to point out that neither clergy nor religious institutions would have to perform or host a marriage against their beliefs, a clause that could ease some fears. A decision on the wording is due from Maine's secretary of state by the end of July.

Mr. Conley said he doubted voters would approve same-sex marriage, in part because people resist change. "From a purely political perspective, a 'no' is easier than a 'yes' on any referendum." he said.

Some money for the opposition campaign is coming from collection plates passed at churches. But most is expected to come from the National Organization for Marriage, which funneled almost $2 million into Maine to help defeat the measure in 2009.

One complication for the opposition this year is that the Roman Catholic Church plans to be less active than it was in 2009, when church officials were criticized for being too involved.

Mr. Conley acknowledged that the campaign in support of same-sex marriage appeared highly organized and well financed. Advocates expect to raise about $5 million, while opponents expect less than half as much.

Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Mainers United for Marriage, a coalition of groups advocating gay marriage, said his side had more time to make its case this year and was playing offense, not defense.

"Normally, when marriage comes up on the ballot, it's in response to a court case or legislative action and at most -- as in 2009 here and in Maryland and Washington -- you have six months to really go out and defend whatever that court or legislature did," Mr. McTighe said. "Maine is the first state to proactively bring this initiative to voters, and that's allowed us to control our own fate."

The campaign's centerpiece is a canvassing effort aimed at undecided voters. Mr. McTighe said a personal approach was the most effective way to convey the message. The coalition has conducted 100,000 "conversations" in two years, he said, with perhaps one in every five people open to changing his or her views.

Amelia Nugent, 23, who was canvassing last week on a warm, buggy night in Falmouth, said she usually told people that she wanted to have the same kind of loving and committed marriage that they had. "It's just humanizing the issue," she said as she walked door to door. "It's about love and family."

Sometimes people are rude, she said, asking her if she wants to marry their dog. Others will talk for 45 minutes, and leave her feeling she has made progress.

The other night, a few people turned Ms. Nugent away; most who talked to her said they already supported gay marriage.

"It's such a nonissue," said Judith Coye, 52, a banker, who spoke briefly with Ms. Nugent.

George Bloom, 57, an environmental engineer who was watering his garden, said he saw no problem with it. He said that he had had gay friends over the years and that allowing them to marry "just seems fair."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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