In Several States, Voters to Decide on Gay Marriage

Atlas Project

by Ari Pinkus and Adam Cohen

Click here for original publication.

To allow or not to allow gay marriage? That is the question swirling around state capitals.  In several states, voters are likely to decide the answer at the ballot box in November. While polling shows the American public has become more accepting of gay marriage, liberal groups still have their work cut out for them to shore up voter support in the states.

Overall, polls show Americans increasingly supporting gay marriage. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released in March shows 49 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed. This is a significant shift from 2004 when 62 percent were opposed to granting marriage rights to gays and lesbians and 30 percent backed same-sex marriage. In the 2004 November presidential election, voters in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon and Utah approved measures banning gay marriage.

Now, a new ballot-measure frenzy in some states – North Carolina, Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota – is causing consternation with particular Democratic leaning voter groups—factions conservative groups are hoping to harness this fall. A newly released memo details plans from the conservative National Organization for Marriage, the leading group against gay marriage as it has ramped up its campaign. “The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks — two key Democratic constituencies,” according to part of the memo that was published in The Hill. “No politician wants to take up and push an issue that splits the base of the party,” the memo went on to say.

While generally states have not yet been besieged by ads, outside groups are planning multimillion-dollar campaigns going forward. Already, the liberal organization Freedom to Marry has launched a “Win More States” fund to raise $3 million for state campaigns.  The Human Rights Campaign is also expected to contribute to the measures supporting gay marriage. National Organization for Marriage as well as Catholic leaders in Maryland and Maine are likely to marshal resources against the measures.

First up is North Carolina where on May 8 voters will decide whether to approve a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. A recent poll shows 54% of the state’s residents oppose the amendment while just 38% support it.  With the vote on the marriage amendment on the same day as the  Republican presidential primary it is likely that makeup of the electorate in the semi-closed primary will be skewed thanks to high turnout of an engaged GOP electorate. Nearly 80% of state Republicans describe themselves as somewhat or very conservative while 64% describe themselves as Evangelical and 68% are 46-years-old and older, according to a recent PPP Poll. All groups have been historically less likely to support gay marriage so the amendment has a good chance of passing.

Maryland sits on the opposite spectrum. Same-sex marriage recently became legal, but a referendum is expected on the November ballot to overturn it. If opponents of the law submit 55,736 valid signatures from Maryland voters by June 30, it will be placed on hold and the outcome will be determined by voters. Governor Martin O’Malley signed the bill March 1.

Here, Democrats must keep an eye on the sentiments of a different group of voters. In the state, 59% of African Americans oppose gay marriage, according to a poll by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies. African Americans are a key Democratic constituency—making up 25% of the state’s voters in 2008. They account for 29% of the state’s voting age population, according to the 2010 Census. In the Democratic stronghold of Baltimore City, 61.5% of the voting age population is African American. In Prince George’s County, African Americans make up 64.7% of the VAP. In 2008, President Obama garnered 87% of the vote in Baltimore City and 89% in Prince George’s County.

In Maine, the battle comes down to how much voters’ views have changed in three years, and demographics may have a role to play, too.  Proponents of gay-marriage have put a measure on the November ballot to legalize same-sex marriage.  In 2008, the 42% of Maine voters who self-identified as Protestant narrowly went for McCain 50-49%.  The legislature’s 2009 bill was overturned by 53 percent of the vote in a referendum in the fall.  The 2009 ballot measure brought in an influx of cash from both sides. Groups in support of same-sex marriage contributed nearly $6.5 million, while conservative groups raised $3.4 million. One top contributor, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland raised $568,025.  Notably, Catholics were 29% of the 2008 electorate in Maine, while Protestants comprised 42%, according to exit poll data.

In Washington state, gay marriage has become law, but opponents are likely to gather enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot. State voters are split on whether gay marriage should remain legal. A Public Policy Poll taken in February showed that 50% of voters would uphold the law legalizing gay marriage, while 46% would repeal it. Young voters support gay marriage 63% to 32%, while seniors oppose it 56% to 39%.

In Minnesota, where same-sex marriage is not legal, voters will determine whether to approve a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the November ballot. Minnesota has a long history of opposing gay marriage. In fact, in 1971, the Minnesota Supreme Court was one of the first in the country to rule on the matter of marriage between same-sex partners. In Baker v. Nelson, the court ruled that state statutes did not allow gay marriage. State policies have been consistent against same-sex marriage ever since.  Meanwhile, public opinion in the state has evolved. In a Public Policy Poll from January, 48% supported the constitutional amendment while 44% of people opposed it. More men (56%) than women (41%) believed the state constitution should ban gay marriage.

In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie, who vetoed a bill legalizing gay marriage in February, proposed putting it on the November ballot. According to a Quinnipiac poll, 57% of the state’s voters support gay marriage while 37% oppose it. A whopping 67% say it should be put on the ballot for voters to decide. No decision has been made.

As public opinion has evolved, the Northeast has been the friendliest ground for the adoption of gay marriage laws. Countering the national trend at the time, in 2004 Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses for same sex couples. Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, Iowa and the District of Columbia followed, enacting laws between 2008 and 2011. Some believe that Washington may be the next frontier for the electorate to uphold gay marriage. In 2009, the state’s electorate voted to give same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples. In 2012, the Democrat Chris Gregoire signed same sex marriage in to law and pending the 2012 initiative, Washington could be the next state to send same sex couples down the aisle.

North Carolina, Minnesota and Maine will have measures on the ballot in 2012. In Maryland and Washington, where gay marriage has recently become law, petitioners must submit the necessary signatures to put measures on the ballot to overturn the new laws. It is widely expected that voters will determine whether the laws remain in place.

– See more at Atlas Project.

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