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Maine votes on repealing same-sex marriage ban

Turnout is reported to be unusually heavy, giving hope to gay-rights advocates. Opponents of the measure acknowledge light turnout would have been better for them but say things remain promising.

November 04, 2009|Bob Drogin

PORTLAND, MAINE — Opponents of Maine's law allowing same-sex marriage claimed victory Tuesday night in their repeal effort, after a heated campaign that polarized the state and drew national attention.

With 87% of the 605 precincts reporting, the Associated Press said, opponents of same-sex marriage led with 53% of the vote, while those seeking to uphold the law had 47%.

The battle was the latest in whether to let gay couples marry. A year ago, Californians passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. If the law is repealed, Maine will join more than 30 other states that have rejected gay and lesbian marriage at the ballot box.

Same-sex unions are recognized in five states -- Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont -- as a result of judicial rulings or legislative action. Voters in Washington on Tuesday approved a measure extending the same legal rights to registered domestic partners that married couples enjoy.

Marc Mutty, chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine, which sought to overturn the state law, said the vote appeared to signal a "victory for traditional marriage."

"This has never been about gay rights," he said. "It's about marriage, and this is reaffirmation by the people of Maine that marriage between men and women is special and unique."

Earlier, gay rights supporters were hopeful of victory when state officials reported that voter turnout appeared unusually heavy. Officials had to print extra ballots to meet the demand.

"That's great for us," said Mark Sullivan, spokesman for No on 1/Protect Maine Equality, the coalition that is seeking to allow same-sex couples to marry. "It means we succeeded in reaching younger people and others who don't always vote."

The optimism was palpable several hours later, when more than 1,500 gay rights supporters packed a hotel ballroom in downtown Portland.

Across town, a few dozen supporters of the repeal movement sat quietly at mostly empty tables in another ballroom. The mood was considerably more subdued.

"Regardless of the outcome tonight, we fought the good fight," Mutty told the gathering. "We have nothing to be ashamed of."

But the moods shifted when an early lead by same-sex marriage supporters evaporated.

Jesse Connolly, chairman of No on 1/Protect Maine Equality, took the stage at 12:30 a.m. today but did not concede. "We won't quit," he said, noting that officials had not counted thousands of absentee ballots.

"It's gonna be a long night," he said.

Amy Fried, a political scientist at the University of Maine in Orono, said the state Legislature almost certainly would pass another same-sex marriage law if voters rejected the statute. If the law were upheld, she added, gay rights activists around the country would look for lessons in what worked and why.

"But there are some unique characteristics in Maine," Fried said. "It's a fairly secular state, with strong libertarian leanings even among conservatives. And Mainers really despise negative campaigning. That doesn't necessarily translate from one state to another."

Rea Carey, executive director of the nonprofit National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said a vote to uphold the law in Maine would bolster efforts to pass similar laws in New York, New Jersey and other states.

"It will be the first time that we have won on marriage equality, and that will not go unnoticed," she said.

A loss, she added, would not stop the effort. "It means we have more work to do. We'll learn from it and move on."

Voters have been bombarded for weeks with TV ads, mailings, phone calls, canvassers and get-out-the-vote efforts, and both sides deployed thousands of volunteers. Yard signs lined some roads, poking out of a blanket of wildly hued autumn leaves Tuesday.

California's bitter fight last year over Proposition 8 set the stage for the high-stakes rematch here.

Gay rights activists organized a fierce campaign last spring to allow same-sex marriages. Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, initially refused to support the proposal, but he signed it in May after it passed the Legislature and spoke to supporters Tuesday night.

Opponents immediately began collecting signatures to call a ballot initiative to repeal the law before it could go into effect.

Though the battle had a distinctly Maine flavor, both sides relied heavily on activists, money and other resources from out of state. Supporters of same-sex marriage raised about $4 million, while the repeal groups raised $2.6 million.

The group opposing same-sex marriage sought to attract the votes of Catholics, members of evangelical churches and other social conservatives in the small towns that pepper the state's less affluent northern and western counties.

Supporters of the marriage law drew their strongest support in Maine's southern cities and suburbs, where political attitudes are more liberal.

Stand for Marriage Maine hired the same consulting firm that ran the campaign to pass Proposition 8, Sacramento-based Schubert Flint Public Affairs, to supervise strategy and advertising.

Using advertisements similar to those aired last year in California, the group warned in a spot broadcast Monday night: "Don't be fooled. Gay marriage will be taught in Maine schools" if the law is not repealed.

Baldacci and state education officials had insisted for weeks that nothing in the new law would require teachers to discuss marriage in schools.

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bob.drogin@latimes.com

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