Yesterday, an unexpectedly high number of voters turned out in Maine to vote on a referendum to repeal a bill passed last May legalizing gay marriage there. This morning, with nearly 90 percent of the votes tallied, the measure has succeeded with 53 points — killing marriage equality in Maine before it got off the ground. It was a severe blow to the well-funded and well-organized supporters, who had viewed this battle as a chance to put to rest the notion that their goals could not be achieved without the help of courts or a liberal legislature.
No on 1, the pro-marriage-equality group that raised nearly twice as much money as their opponents, focused their advertising campaigns on the idea that gay families are no different than straight ones, and that independent Mainers shouldn’t let out-of-state people tell them what to do. Their opponents, which indeed received more than half of their funding from the New Jersey–based anti-gay group National Organization of Marriage, ran a series of misleading ads claiming that gay marriage would be taught in schools — despite this being denied by the state attorney general. (Side note: We’ve never understood this point — don’t you want your children to be taught what’s going on in the world?)
Going into yesterday, pollsters gave gay activists a slight edge — though with the caveat that polling tends to generally reflect an inaccurate level of support for gay marriage. They were right to voice their doubts. Polling analyst Nate Silver, on his FiveThirtyEight blog, said of the discrepancy between poll numbers and results: “I think we have to seriously consider whether there is some sort of a Bradley Effect in the polling on gay rights issues.” That is, the idea that voters feel guilty saying out loud to someone that they won’t vote for a minority candidate or issue, but will do so in the private comfort of the ballot box.
Anti-marriage-equality advocates, like NOM’s head Maggie Gallagher, are triumphant this morning. Reporting from what she calls the “war room” (because gay couples are the enemy now, you see), wrote: “This is huge. I am so happy.” Gallagher’s coalition helped put the referendum on the ballot this fall, taking advantage of the off-year cycle when lower turnout at the polls would favor the older, rural population, who traditionally vote more regularly — and conservatively. It was not enough for her and her allies that the state legislature passed marriage equality and it was signed by the governor in the first place. The scorn they originally maintained for what they colorfully called “activist judges” was expanded, apparently, to a larger chunk of the democratic process.
There’s a lot to be said about this vote on behalf of marriage-equality advocates: John Stuart Mill may have argued in this case that a minority group’s rights to behavior need to be protected from social tyranny and the tyranny of the majority. And there is also the point that we don’t elect our public officials to make every decision exactly as we would — we elect them because we trust their judgment. But these sorts of arguments always sound like excuses or deflections, and in a sense, they are. The fact of the matter is, over 50 percent of registered voters in Maine turned out to voice their opinion.
Instead, this is our take: At the end of the day, the way this vote panned out was rooted in an instinctual gut feeling, rather than information or misinformation on either side. That’s what motivates people to the ballot in an off-year. The anti-marriage-equality advocates will view this as a triumph. People, Maggie Gallagher will argue, can inherently feel what is right. But this is exactly what, in the future, will be her and their downfall. Logical arguments do not fluctuate. But feelings — the exact kind that so easily change when a gay couple turns up next door, or in one’s own family — certainly do. And the narrow margin by which this bill was overturned is proof that these feelings are changing, for the better, every year.