PORTLAND, Maine – Bolstered by out-of-state money and volunteers, both sides jockeyed Monday to boost turnout for a Maine referendum that could give gay-rights activists in the U.S. their first victory at the ballot box on the deeply divisive issue of same-sex marriage.
The state’s voters will decide today whether to repeal a law that would allow gay marriage. The law was passed by the Legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci last May but has never taken effect.
The contest is considered too close to call, and both campaigns worked vigorously – with rallies, phone calls, e-mails and ads – to be sure their supporters cast votes in the off-year election.
If voters uphold the law, it will be the first time the electorate in any state has endorsed marital rights for same-sex couples, energizing activists nationwide and deflating a long-standing conservative argument that gay marriage lacks popular support.
Conversely, a repeal – in New England, the corner of the country most receptive to same-sex marriage – would be a jolting setback for the gay-rights movement and mark the first time voters overturned a gay-marriage law enacted by a legislature. When Californians voters rejected gay marriage a year ago, it was in response to a court ruling, not legislation.
Apart from Maine, five states have legalized same-sex marriage – Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. But all did so via legislation or court rulings, not through a popular vote. By contrast, constitutional amendments banning gay marriage have been approved in all 30 states where they have reached the ballot.
“The eyes of the nation will be on Maine,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “The stakes are high, but so is our hope that Maine will remain among the growing number of states that extend the essential security and legal protections of marriage to all loving, committed couples.”
Brian Brown of the New Jersey-based National Organization of Marriage, which has contributed $1.5 million to the repeal campaign, agreed the election is critical for both sides.
He took heart in polls showing a close race, saying polling in other states that voted on the issue tended to underestimate the eventual opposition to same-sex marriage.
“New England is the one area where it’s much tougher ground for us than other states,” Brown said. “The fact that in a state like Maine we’re polling relatively even shows the depth of support for saying marriage is between a man and a woman.”