The Marriage Vote

Maryland may break new ground if same-sex marriage wins at the ballot box.
by Julia O’Donoghue
Tomorrow, Maryland could become the first state ever to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote.

With one day until the election, leaders of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a pro-marriage equality grassroots organization, say they are cautiously optimistic about the measure’s chances. Two independent polls conducted in September indicated that people who are likely to vote in the election favor making same-sex marriage legal.

The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation in February to allow same-sex marriage, and Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the bill in March. But opponents of the bill, such as the conservativeMaryland Marriage Alliance, collected enough signatures to put the measure on the November ballot. If voters don’t approve same-sex marriage on Election Day, then the law passed by the state legislature does not stand.

Maine and Washington will also vote on marriage equality this week, but Maryland’s polls close earlier. Therefore, if voters there approve same-sex marriage, Maryland would be the first of the three states – and the first state ever – to win marriage equality by vote.

If same-sex marriage can clear a ballot initiative, its opponents could be running out of ways to block marriage equality from coming to other liberal states like Maryland. When courts started approving same-sex marriage laws in states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, the opposition initially relied on state legislatures to block the measures. Then, when legislatures approved same-sex marriage, they moved on to ballot measures and popular votes.

Now, if voters back same-sex marriage, anti-marriage-equality activists will have to look for a new tactic, says M.V. Lee Badgett, research director at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Policy.  “If this starts happening in different states, it might lead to some sort of change in political maneuvering by opponents in the fight over the right to marry,” Badgett says.

In a Maryland poll from mid-September, Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies found that 50.9 percent of voters favored the same-sex marriage referendum and 42.8 percent opposed it.

OpinionWorks undertook a different poll for The Baltimore Sun in late September, finding that 49 percent of registered voters want to make same-sex marriage legal and 39 percent oppose the measure.

This is fairly dramatic shift from a previous OpinionWorks poll conducted in March, right after the Maryland General Assembly passed the initial legislation approving same-sex marriage. According to The Baltimore Sun, that poll found that only 40 percent of likely voters supported making same-sex marriage legal and 43 percent opposed it.

“There was definitely a big move, and the biggest area where there was some movement was in the African-American community,” says Steve Raabe, OpinionWorks president.

Back in March, OpinionWorks found that 48 percent of African-American voters opposed same-sex marriage and 29 percent approved of it. In September, the situation was completely reversed, with 58 percent of African-American voters saying they support same-sex marriage and only 26 percent saying they were opposed. Gonzales Research found a similar sea change among African-American voters.

Black voters are particularly important in Maryland. During Obama’s first election, African-Americans made up about 25 percent of the state’s electorate. In a standard Maryland gubernatorial race, they comprise about 20 percent of the vote, Raabe said.

Given these numbers, Marylanders for Marriage Equality is trying to appeal to the African-American community. The organization has produced several videos featuring African-Americans who support same-sex marriage, including pastors, celebrities and at least one professional football player.

The Maryland Marriage Alliance, which opposes same-sex marriage, has also been doing its own organizing around churches and religious communities. A “Church Resources” tab on its website links to a clergy handbook, daily prayer suggestions and a generic letter to a pastor that can be printed out and distributed. The day before the election, opponents of same-sex marriage are also holding a rally at Rock City Church in Baltimore.

To a certain extent, the organization also appears to be targeting black voters. One set of flyers on their website features a black family and states, in reference to the civil rights group’s endorsement of marriage equality, “The NAACP got this one wrong!” The Maryland Marriage Alliance could not be reached for comment.

Though the numbers look good for same-sex marriage advocates, Raabe cautions that the vote count is likely to be much closer than the 10-percentage-point margin his recent poll indicated. Some of the padded support comes from “soft” voters, who are likely to vote for a presidential candidate but may not pay attention to other measures.

The Maryland ballot is crowded this year, with referenda on gambling and illegal immigrants’ access to state college tuition also included. “Soft” voters may be less likely to take the time to look down the list of questions to the same-sex marriage initiative, according to Raabe.

“Some people are likely just to skip it because of where it is located on the ballot,” Raabe says. “Some people won’t want to work their way through the wording.”

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© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
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