This election, in addition to deciding upon the national and local candidates, Maine voters will be facing a ballot question on the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, Question 1. The question reads simply: Do you want to allow the State of Maine to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?
However, the battle over same-sex marriage in this state has been anything but simple. Maine has recognized same sex domestic partnerships since 2004. Yet a domestic partnership is not a marriage, and does not entail the same rights as a marriage. As the Maine Department of Health and Human Services explicitly points out, the domestic partnerships protect the rights of a partner to inheritance without a will, and to make decisions about a deceased partner’s remains.
Critical rights such as health insurance through the employer of your partner, or family medical leave still extend to individuals only through marriage. Beyond this, gay rights advocates have consistently argued that the fight for same sex marriage and equality is fundamentally about recognition. Even a system of fully equivalent rights would be deficient if it continued to categorize gay and straight couples differently.
This is not Maine’s first ballot question on this issue. Same-sex marriage was actually approved by the Maine legislature in 2009 and signed into law by then-Governor John Baldacci. However, opponents of the measure immediately launched a campaign to repeal the law via a popular referendum. In November of 2009, their efforts succeeded when the law was overturned by a 53% to 47% margin.
How will same sex marriage fare this time around? It’s still difficult to say with any certainty. A Critical Insights poll released on Saturday suggests that 55% of Mainers support same-sex marriage, 42% oppose it, and 3% remain undecided. This would seem to suggest a resounding victory for marriage equality supporters. But these numbers are far from stable. Opponents of same-sex marriage have significantly ramped up television advertising in the weeks leading up to the election. Comparing the most recent polls to those taken in months past, we have seen a gradual uptick in the number of individuals who are opposed to Question 1.
Compounding this uncertainty is the inherent difficulty of getting accurate polling data on such an issue. This is due to what is deemed “social desirability bias.” Those who harbor misgivings about same-sex marriage may be reluctant to express them to a pollster for fear being perceived as intolerant or insensitive. In the anonymity of the voting booth, they will not hesitate to vote their true feelings.
Mobilization in these last few days will be the key. Marriage equality organizers in Maine have run a smart, technologically savvy campaign. They have combined sophisticated tracking techniques and centralized coordination of their efforts with extensive canvassing and face-to-face interaction with voters. In these final weeks, their emphasis has shifted towards voter mobilization. Their most recent work has revolved around ensuring that demographics likely to be supportive of Question 1 get registered and get to the polls both in early voting and on Election Day. In the end, though the result will be close, these strategic efforts may simply be too much for opponents of same-sex marriage to effectively counter.