Same-sex marriage on the ballot in four states

During his famous “evolution” on the gay marriage issue, President Obama said that he believes the question should be settled at the state level.  Four states have same-sex marriage on the ballot in this election: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State.

Maine actually had a same-sex marriage law, but it was nullified by ballot referendum in 2009.  The current initiative would, if successful, reverse the previous one and re-activate the law.  It’s interesting to read media accounts of the current referendum and notice how they twist themselves into pretzels trying to mis-characterize the 2009 referendum as a popular vote in favor of gay marriage that didn’t quite make it.  Not so – Maine’s same-sex marriage law was imposed by the legislature, and overturned by popular vote.  If the current initiative passes, the net effect will be the same in long run – same-sex marriage will have been legalized and supported by popular vote – but history from 2009 to the present should not be so difficult to recount accurately.

In Maryland, Democrat governor Martin O’Malley actually signed a same-sex marriage law earlier this year, but a petition drive gathered enough signatures to force a ballot referendum.  The Washington Post notes that the same-sex marriage law has “proved a tough sell among some black clergy and their congregations,” although it does include an explicit provision that “protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs” and “affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith,” to quote the ballot language.

Minnesota’s ballot measure is actually an effort to write the current “one man plus one woman” definition of marriage into the state constitution, which would thwart the imposition of same-sex marriage by judicial fiat.  If Maine, Maryland, or Washington pass their same-sex marriage initiatives, as the Houston Chronicle notes, they would actually become “the first state or states to extend marriage rights to lesbians and gays by popular vote.”  Minnesota voters would still be able to alter their state constitution to do so in the future, if they wish.

Washington, which already has expansive domestic partnership provisions, is in a similar situation.  The legislature passed a law this year, and Governor Chris Gregoire signed it, but a petition drive forced a ballot referendum.  Washington’s law also includes language to “preserve the right of clergy or religious organizations to refuse to perform, recognize, or accommodate any marriage ceremony.”

The presidential race and tight congressional contests may have overshadowed the marriage question in other states, but it’s been a big deal in the states where it’s on the ballot.   The Houston Chronicle reports the National Organization for Marriage spent $500,000 on a phone campaign in support of traditional marriage, while the Human Rights Campaign “said it has spent $20 million and two years” to get same-sex marriage laws passed.  In Washington alone, the Oregonian reports “about $13.6 million has been spent on Washington state’s campaign so far, with the bulk of it spent by gay marriage supporters,” by a factor of about 4 to 1.

Polling on most of these ballot initiatives seems very tight.  Big early leads in favor of same-sex marriage in Maine and Maryland have largely dissipated, and Minnesota’s effort to write traditional marriage into the state constitution has generally seemed like a toss-up. Washington State seems to have posted the strongest sustained support for legalizing gay marriage, and stands a good chance of becoming the first state to do so by popular vote.