When asked about gay marriage at the ballot box, Americans in states across the country have gone to the polls 32 times since 1998 and voted against it. They’ll have the choice to vote on the issue again in November in four states, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington, but this time around, advocates for gay marriage are hoping voters will choose differently. After all, President Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage in May, and the NAACP followed by endorsing same-sex marriage a few days later.
A new poll out Wednesday indicates that a very slight majority of Maryland voters support it. The state Legislature passed a law allowing same-sex marriage this year, but opponents gathered enough signatures to take the issue to voters. But 50.9% of voters polled said they would vote for the referendum, which allows gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license. About 42.8% of voters said they opposed the referendum and 6.3% said they were undecided, according to the poll, released by Gonzalez Research & Marketing Strategies. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Maryland would be the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to support same-sex marriage, and would probably indicate that advocates were able to convince African American voters to support it. African Americans make up 30% of the population in Maryland. Maryland’s campaign for same-sex marriage has attracted the attention of many in Hollywood including Susan Sarandon, who attended a fundraiser for Marylanders for Marriage Equality in New York City earlier this month.
To be sure, polls on gay marriage are notoriously unreliable. Numerous polls showed support for gay marriage was leading in the weeks before the 2008 election in California, but voters backed Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, 52% to 48%. Pollsters have concluded that people who say they are undecided on the issue usually vote against it.
That means a recent poll from Maine shows the race is close there. A poll from Public Policy Polling last week indicated that 52% of voters said they would support a ballot initiative that would legalize gay marriage. But 44% said they opposed gay marriage, and 4% said they weren’t sure. The margin of error for that poll was 3.5%.
“Despite the 8-point lead for passage, this should be seen as a very close race,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, about the Maine race.
When asked whether gay marriage should be legal or illegal, 52% of Mainers said it should be legal, with 40% saying it should be illegal. In 2009, the Legislature approved and the governor signed a bill legalizing gay marriage, but a campaign to repeal that law was successful at the polls in November, 53% to 47%.
It’s unclear how much voters’ minds have changed in the three years since then.
As in Maryland, Washington’s Legislature passed and the governor signed a law legalizing gay marriage, but opponents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot asking voters whether they wanted gay marriage to be legal.
A poll earlier this month indicated that 56% of Washingtonians thought the law legalizing gay marriage should be approved, 38% thought it should be rejected, and 6% of voters were undecided. Washington has had a slew of high-profile companies and businessmen donating to the campaign to support same-sex marriage: Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos gave $2.5 million to the campaign, and Bill Gates and Starbucks also have come out in favor of the law.
Gay rights advocates might have the biggest challenge in Minnesota, a one-time progressive state where polls show voters evenly divided on gay marriage. In Minnesota, there’s already a law on the books prohibiting gay marriage, but voters will weigh in on a proposed constitutional amendment also outlawing gay marriage. It’s a popular tactic: There are constitutional amendments in 31 states that prohibit gay marriage.
In the poll from earlier this month, by Public Policy Polling, 48% of voters say they support the amendment to ban gay marriage while 47% oppose it. Women, Democrats and voters under 45 years old opposed the ban, while Republicans, independents and seniors supported it, according to the polling company. Religious institutions, such as the Lutheran and Catholic churches, have a stronger presence in Minnesota than in other states, and have been active in supporting the ban.
“Minnesota has traditionally been economically moderate or liberal while it has been also traditionally conservative on social issues,” said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.
General Mills Inc., which is based in a suburb of Minneapolis, has come out in favor of gay marriage in the state, saying a ban would hurt its recruiting efforts. Opponents of the constitutional amendment have also found a backer in Minnesota Vikings kicker Chris Kluwe, a UCLA grad who supports gay marriage. He also wrote a letter to a Maryland delegate who suggested that football players should not talk about the issue.
“Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level,” he wrote in the letter.