This November 3 the people of Maine will decide whether to keep a law, passed just six months ago, that made Maine the fifth state (of six) to legalize gay marriage. Polls are predicting a nail-biting finish, with the most recent showing those in favor of repeal ahead by 51 to 47 percent, effectively a tie (the poll has a 2.9 percent margin of error). With early voting already underway, both sides are ramping up their campaigns to reach out to Maine’s voters and to ensure strong turnouts in this unusually intense off-year campaign.
A victory for the “No on 1” campaign would be the nation’s first popular vote in support of gay marriage. It would build on momentum from a string of important victories in Vermont, Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this year. It would put an end to more than thirty consecutive defeats of marriage equality at the ballot box–including California’s Proposition 8 one year ago–as states across the country have passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman. (A 2006 vote in Arizona which rejected such a constitutional amendment is the only exception, but that was followed by a 2008 measure banning gay marriage which passed by a comfortable margin.) A defeat on Tuesday would be a major blow, reinforcing the argument that gay marriage has been won only through the actions of “liberal elites” in state courts and legislatures.
While Tuesday’s vote is clearly of national significance, the campaigns run by both sides in Maine have kept their message local. Maine’s Governor John Baldacci, who opposed gay marriage before changing his mind and signing the bill in May, has since then thrown his weight behind the campaign to keep the new law. He insists to the New York Times that this is not a national issue, or about gay rights in general, but is “Maine-specific.” Supporters of the law “don’t mind being part of a national address on this issue,” he told me, but they “are going through this because there are Maine individuals and families that would be negatively impacted if we didn’t provide equal protection under the constitution.” Whether or not Maine’s LGBT community is so narrowly focused on state issues, this message may prove critical in winning the support of undecided voters.
Baldacci points to public hearings held by the state legislature in April this year as a pivotal moment, not only for himself, but for the broader debate in Maine. The hearings, attended by an unprecedented crowd of 3-4,000 people, an estimated three-quarters of whom wore red shirts to show their support for marriage equality, included powerful testimonies in support of gay marriage from a wide range of people: rural farming families, World War II veterans and children from LBGT families. (One especially moving testimony, from an 86-year-old World War II veteran and lifelong Mainer Philip Spooner, has since received over half a million hits on YouTube.) Baldacci, a lifelong Mainer, described the testimony as “completely remarkable…unique and different than anything I have experienced in my history in this state.” It was “really a baring of the soul” and “people in Maine…realized that we’re not talking about people in California or Washington, we’re talking about people here in Maine.”