Will Maine Overturn Gay Marriage at the Polls?

As the ink dries on Maine Gov. John Baldacci's signature legalizing gay marriage, it's not too soon to ask whether this law will ...
by | May 6, 2009

As the ink dries on Maine Gov. John Baldacci's signature legalizing gay marriage, it's not too soon to ask whether this law will last. Maine has a "People's Veto" that allows citizens to put new laws to a public vote, provided that opponents of the law gather enough signatures (55,087 to be exact). Social conservatives intend to put gay marriage on the ballot.

Will they, like their counterparts in California, succeed in overturning the law?

The answer certainly isn't obvious. Only once, in Arizona in 2006, has a state voted against a gay marriage ban. However, most of the votes have taken place in states that are quite a bit more conservative than Maine.

Here's my chart comparing gay marriage votes to the average Republican presidential vote in the state in 2004 and 2008 (that's a rough measure of how conservative a state is). As you'll see (and as you'd expect), the two numbers are roughly correlated. States that have more people voting Republican also have more people voting to ban gay marriage. Plus, almost always more people are voting to ban gay marriage than are voting for the Republican presidential candidates.

Gay marriage votes 2  

* States where the measure could have been interpreted as barring civil unions or other same-sex benefits in addition to gay marriage.

What can we learn from all of these numbers? Well, on average across all of these state votes, there were 12.6 percentage points more support for gay marriage bans than for the Republican candidates. President Bush notched 44.6% in Maine in 2004 and John McCain received 40.4% last year, for an average of 42.5%. If you add 12.6 percentage points to 42.5%, that would mean 55% Maine voters would support a ban on gay marriage.

Using gay marriage votes that go all the way back to 2004, however, isn't necessarily a good idea because sentiment on the issue has shifted since then. If you just look at the votes since 2006, that 12.6 percentage points figure becomes just over 9. That would mean a very close vote.

If you've studied my chart carefully, though, you might notice that something is missing. Not a single state in New England is on the list. In fact, no state in the Northeast has ever voted on a gay marriage ban. So, the regular rules might not apply. Plus, those rules aren't hard and fast anyway -- the correlation between a state's support for Republicans and it's support for gay marriage is pretty loose.

So, it also makes sense to look at how Maine itself has voted on gay rights topics. Conveniently, Maine may have voted on the subject more times than any other state -- although the state has never voted specifically on same-sex marriage.

In one way or another, the state has voted four times, in 1995, 1998, 2000 and 2005, on whether discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation should be illegal. The first three votes are pretty much ancient history at this point. In the fourth one, 55% of voters chose to uphold a law that barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (a People's Veto failed with 45% of the vote).

That result is reason for gay rights supporters to hope that the expected People's Veto will fail this time around too. That said, more voters tend to favor anti-discrimination laws than favor gay marriage.

If I had to guess, I'd say we see a repeat of Prop. 8 and the gay marriage law is thrown out in a very close vote after a heated, expensive campaign. Maine has the nation's oldest median age. Young people are most likely to favor gay marriage.

In a strange way, that prediction should provide comfort to gay marriage supporters. Last year, I predicted that Prop. 8 would lose. Somehow, whatever I predict, the opposite tends to be what actually happens.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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