The head of the statewide LGBT rights group in Maine is excited about the prospects for a November ballot measure that would legalize same-sex marriage.
Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, said during a Washington Blade interview on Saturday that a win in Maine on the initiative — the first voter-initiated pro-LGBT measure to appear on a state ballot anywhere in the country — would be “hugely significant.”
“Our opponents are always saying that we can win marriage in the courts and we can win marriage in the legislature … but when it comes to the people, we can never win marriage,” Smith said. “That’s the biggest thing. If we win at the ballot, it will be through the support of Mainers, of Americans, and that’s a really, really important statement that Americans are now believing that the freedom to marry is what should be the law of the country.”
Last week, Equality Maine — as well as allied groups Freedom to Marry and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders — submitted more than 105,000 signatures to Secretary of State Charles Summers, Jr., for certification of a ballot measure legalizing same-sex marriage. The number of names required for certification is 57,000, and Smith said she has significantly more than enough valid names to qualify for the ballot.
“There’s not a problem with the signatures,” Smith said. “We have, we think, around 85,000 to 90,000 valid signatures. So, in terms of validating, that’s not an issue.”
The secretary of state has 30 days to review the signatures and validate them, so the office will certify the measure by Feb. 26. Once the measure is certified, it won’t go directly to the ballot but to the Maine Legislature.
The legislature has three options. One would be passing the initiative on its own, an unlikely scenario that would result in the measure becoming law and the legalization of marriage rights for gay couples. Another, which Smith said she’s betting on, is the legislature indefinitely postponing action on the measure, sending it to voters after the lawmakers recess for the year in April.
But another option for the legislature that has drawn concern is the placing of an alternate question before voters alongside the proposition to legalize same-sex marriage. For example, the legislature could approve language asking voters to approve civil unions as an alternative to marriage, or same-sex marriage with extreme religious exemptions.
But Smith said she thinks the legislature won’t pursue this path, which could derail the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine, because neither opponents nor supporters of same-sex marriage will want to go down that road.
“You’d have to have majority support for whatever you want to pass, so if it’s for civil unions, they would need to have a majority support civil unions,” Smith said. “Start thinking about where those votes come from. Well, the pro-marriage folks are not going to vote for it because we don’t want them to, and the anti-equality folks don’t support even civil unions for us, so when you start to add up how they get majority support, even though it’s a Republican legislature, it’s just really highly unlikely.”
But once the voter-initiated ballot measure is certified, the legislature can do nothing to kill it, so same-sex marriage would be on the ballot in Maine one way or the other.
November 2012 won’t be the first time that Maine voters have had to decide on the question of same-sex marriage. In 2009, Maine voters rejected a same-sex marriage law, signed by former Gov. John Baldacci (D), in a referendum by a vote of 53 percent.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said movement in favor of same-sex marriage within the American public at large and having President Obama at the top of the ticket bodes well for LGBT advocates the second time around at the ballot.
“While Maine is unusual politically, and can go back and forth between the parties and has an independent streak, it is very likely to back Obama again this fall,” Sabato said. “That probably helps passage. On the whole, I’d say it will be a tough fight, but prospects for approval are no worse than 50-50, and potentially could be better if the pro-marriage campaign is well run.”
One small change from 2009 that works in favor of passage is the change in the title for the measure. In 2009, the law was called “An Act To End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedom.” But the proposed title for the 2012 initiative is “An Act to Allow Marriage Licenses for Same-Sex Couples and Protect Religious Freedom.” Smith said research found this language played better with voters.
She said she believes an effective campaign will cost between $4 and $5 million. Although 2012 will be a competitive year and donors will have to make choices to give to the president, congressional races and ballot initiatives in other marriage states, Smith said her organization’s calculations “show we can raise that amount of money.”
But anti-gay forces are already making preparations to block these efforts.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, in a statement last week pledged to fight the initiative and derided efforts to legalize marriage equality in Maine after the state rejected it in 2009.
“NOM intends to vigorously fight this attempt by same-sex marriage advocates to impose gay marriage in Maine,” Brown said. “Maine voters rejected gay marriage barely more than two years ago. What part of ‘no’ don’t gay marriage advocates understand?”
But Smith offered a litany of reasons why the outcome of a ballot measure in 2012 would be different. She said her organization made the decision to go to the ballot in December after it started gathering signatures last summer.
Among them, Smith said, are internal polls showing that support for same-sex marriage is somewhere between 53 and 54 percent.
“We have been running a public education initiative that we ramped up significantly in 2011, including knocking on 110,000 doors, having conversations with around 40,000 Mainers about why marriage matters in an effort to engage them in what we call a persuasion conversation,” Smith said.
Smith added her organization looked at the strength of the coalition and the willingness of volunteers to collect 105,000 names to put same-sex marriage on the ballot, which she said “indicated to us that volunteers are really excited and happy to get back involved.”
“So those are the … things that make 2012 different and led us to make the decision that we have the window of opportunity to win,” Smith concluded.