Election Day 2009 came and went, and, while for most people this meant local elections for mayor, alderman, or county executive, something much more important and divisive was on the ballot in one state. On November 3, Maine voters became the latest state to weigh in on same-sex marriage, narrowly passing Question 1, which asked voters, “Do you want to reject the new law that lets same-sex couples marry and allows individuals and religious groups to refuse to perform these marriages?” The vote passed by a margin of 52.82% to 47.18%, repealing the law that had passed earlier in the year and making Maine just another state in a long list of states to reject gay marriage at the ballot box.
This past May, Maine passed a bill that would have recognized and allowed same-sex marriage. However, opponents of the bill compiled signatures to put the bill up for popular vote, postponing the bill’s implementation until after the election.
While initiatives and issue voting have become increasingly well known since the passage of Proposition 8 in California last year, they tend to make for a different sort of vote than standard elections. Created during the Progressive Era, initiatives were meant to make state governments more accountable and beholden to the people.
However, in recent years, initiatives have been used with varying degrees of success for issues ranging from social policy to taxes. Massachusetts voters decriminalized marijuana and banned dog racing in last year’s elections while voting against abolishing the income tax. Initiatives are placed on the ballot only if supporters have enough signatures as determined by the state.
“The interesting dynamic about propositions or local initiatives is that they are very much subject to very active and mobilized interest groups, or a small electorate,” said Professor Natalie Masuoka, who specializes in American politics and political behavior. “If they turn out in fairly cohesive numbers, they have the opportunity of swinging the vote in their direction… It demonstrates from a political science point of view how powerful a small voting bloc is, particularly at the local level.”
Initiative elections do not usually draw large crowds to the polls, particularly during an off-year election like 2009. Masuoka explained “It’s really only going to be the small bloc of folks who really feel adamant about getting the ban passed that are actually going to turn out and swing the election.” This phenomenon informs our understanding of the results. Masuoka added, “From a political science point of view, I don’t think we should take this as something that is overwhelmingly demonstrating some kind of moral or ethical shift in American perspectives about gay marriage. I think it what it more demonstrates is the power of a small bloc of voters to create or implement policy in this country.”
The vote in Maine highlights the importance of appealing to a small group of voters and motivating supporters to get out and vote. For Tom Bourdon, director of the Tufts LGBT center, while the result of the vote was disappointing, there is still a lot of hope to take out of the support that gay marriage received in Maine and from the enthusiasm of supporters.
“It was amazing to see the way the supporters of marriage equality mobilized and had such a positive impact on Maine,” said Bourdon. “We saw people young and old, gay and straight, stand up for one of our nation’s highest principles: equality. These people did such a great job of getting their message out there loud and clear: we cannot have two classes of citizens. It is heartbreaking to me that the measure to reject same-sex marriage still passed.”
Even though Maine passed Question 1,national movement seems to maintain momentum. Gay marriage has, in less than ten years, developed from not being legal anywhere to being legal in five states: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Iowa. On top of this, there is the distinct possibility of more states legalizing it in the future, (the New York Senate is poised to vote on the issue very soon, but as of yet it has not quite gotten its act together).
According to Masuoka, same-sex marriage “is a generational issue. “As generations shift into the actual voting population of the electorate, that’s how we get a lot of social issues to change. This is same thing that went for women’s issues and for civil rights issues. As these blocs of voters change and age, that’s when you see the social change happening in the electorate.”
Taking age into account, it seems that although the initiative passed, the population should shift more towards being supportive of gay marriage with time. Considering the margin of defeat in Maine, Bourdon said, “However, it only passed by 5.6%, and I think the vote says that we are almost there. We are so close to winning over the majority and having people understand that separate is not equal.