By Jennie Drage Bowser
It looks likely that voters may say "yes" to same-sex marriage for almost the first time in U.S. history. I say "almost" because Arizona voters rejected a same-sex marriage ban back in 2006. That vote was widely regarded as an anomaly due to that particular campaign's attention on how the ban might affect elderly opposite-sex couples who chose not to marry. Arizona voters went on to approve a same-sex marriage ban in 2008.
This year's crop of same-sex marriage measures is different from the 33 measures that have appeared on the ballot since 1998 in two key ways: the kinds of questions posed to voters are different, and the outcome may be dramatically different.
A different kind of question
Nearly all of the previous statewide popular votes on same-sex marriage have sought to ban the practice. They have generally been posed as amendments to state constitutions that would insert a definintion of marriage as "between one man and one woman," effectively prohibiting same-sex marriage. This year, voters in Maine will be asked to legalize same-sex marriage. That question has never been posed to a state's voters before.
The questions on the ballot in Maryland and Washington this November are popular referenda -- the are attempts by same-sex marriage opponents to veto bills recently passed by legislatures in those states that legalized the practice. This type of question has been on the ballot just once before -- in 2009, voters in Maine vetoed a new law legalizing same-sex marriage in that state. When the vote goes that way and voters veto a new bill, it never takes effect.
A different outcome
All signs point to a big change in voter attitudes toward same-sex marriage this year.
- In Maine, a late September poll showed voters favoring the legalization of same-sex marriage by a margin of 57 - 36. Seven percent remain undecided.
- In Maryland, a late September poll again shows voters in support of same-sex marriage, this time by 51 - 43 with six percent undecided. In this case, those undecided voters are great enough in number to potentially tip the election result to the "no" side.
- The attitudes of Minnesota are much less clear: a September 23 poll there found the chances of their proposal to ban same-sex marriage in a statistical tie at 49 percent in favor of the ban and 47 percent opposed. Past polls have revealed a similarly divided electorate.
- An early September poll in Washington indicates that support is at 52 - 40, with eight percent still undecided. Some voters there remain confused about exactly what a "yes" vote or a "no" vote means, a common problem with popular referenda. For the record, in the case of Referendum 74 in Washington (and also Queston 6 in Maryland), a "yes" vote is FOR same-sex marriage, and a "no" vote is AGAINST same-sex marriage.
If the predictions in any of these polls pan out on November 6, history will be made. Note that NCSL data on voter behavior supports the idea that Americans' attitudes toward same-sex marriage are changing, with a steady decline in support for same-sex marriage bans evident in election results nationwide since 2005.
Opponents of same-sex marriage, however, like to point out that early polls on California's Proposition 8 in 2008 showed similar results, yet that measure went on to fail on Election Day. A Wikipedia collection of pre-election polls confirms this - as early as October 31, 50 percent of voters opposed the same-sex marriage ban. The 2008 polling numbers in California moved around a lot more than the numbers in Maine, Maryland and Washington have this year though.
The bottom line: you'll have to stay tuned for the final result, but signs point to voters in two more more states voting to legalize same-sex marriage this year.