Friday, November 6, 2009

The Scary Lesson of Maine - It Has To Be Done

In a great article examining what happened to bring about Maine's passage of Question 1, which threw out the state's new marriage equality law, the Bangor Daily News takes a look at who voted and how the two opposing campaigns convinced their supporters to vote.

The map below delineates the different parts of the state and how they voted on Question 1.

Maine Question Map

Opinions may differ on particular strategies. But the unofficial results show that, as with many other cultural issues, whether Mainers voted for or against same-sex marriage largely depended on where they call home.

Rural Maine voted heavily to overturn Maine’s law allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.

In the most extreme example, 73 percent of the nearly 27,000 Aroostook County voters who cast ballots voted “yes” on Question 1. Roughly two-thirds of voters in Piscataquis, Somerset and Washington counties also favored repeal.

The opposite was true in many of Maine’s more populated areas.

In Cumberland County, 60 percent of voters opposed the repeal and in Portland, Maine’s largest city, that figure swelled to 73.5 percent. Roughly 54 percent of voters in Bangor and Scarborough cast votes against the repeal of the same-sex marriage law.

Gay marriage also had strong support in college towns, picking up 73 percent of voters in Orono and 63 percent in Brunswick.

One notable exception to the rural-urban divide was in the heavily Roman Catholic and Franco-American neighborhoods of Lewiston and Auburn, where 59 percent and 54 percent of voters, respectively, favored the repeal.

University of Maine political scientist Amy Fried pointed out that those returns were a change from 2005, when Lewiston voted in favor of preserving anti-discrimination laws protecting Maine’s gay and lesbian residents.

Fried was also intrigued by the partisan message — or lack thereof — in the 2009 referenda.

Two anti-tax measures failed while changes to the state’s medical marijuana laws passed — all of which Fried said could suggest a strong turnout among more liberal-minded Mainers. But the defeat of gay marriage could suggest a strong conservative presence at the polls, she said.

“That’s if you want to think of it in those terms, and maybe we shouldn’t in Maine because we are ticket-splitters,” she said.

Coastal counties were typically more evenly divided. The exceptions were Waldo County, where the Yes campaign won 54 percent, and Hancock County, where the No camp won 53 percent.
It is very puzzling that the voters chose to support medical marijuana while at the same time voting against LGBT civil rights.

Ideology, partisanship and religion are usually strong indicators of how someone will vote, and using that formula, many believed we would win in Maine, but the voting results indicate a vast sea of the unknown. You can point out that the populated areas voted in our favor, but that doesn't always happen - Los Angeles County voted in favor of Prop 8. Marriage equality has never won at the ballot, having failed 31 times. We have yet to crack the nut to victory.

The NO on 1 campaign learned a lot from California's Proposition 8, applying the most obvious lessons learned by placing gay and lesbian couples in ads to tell their stories and appeal to voters to support equality for all. They were fast to respond to the opposition (though how effective these responses were is still up to debate), outspent them, and were on the air with ads two weeks before the Yes on 1.

But it wasn't enough.

Another head scratcher is the fact that Maine is one of the most secular states in the country. Though the Catholic Church wields great power in the state, a majority of Mainers don't self-identify as very religious.

According to a report by, which breaks down the major contributors to both campaigns, the Yes on 1 campaign was mostly funded by the Dioecese of Maine and conservative organizations. Their fast facts:
  • 58 percent of the total raised by Maine's Question 1 opponents in 2009 flowed into the state from donors around the country--the same amount proponents raised in total. Regardless, the proponents prevailed: voters repealed same-sex marriage.
  • Gay-marriage advocates raised money from more than 10,000 donors--12 times more than opponents reported. Question 1 passed despite the numbers imbalance, banning same-sex marriage in Maine.
  • The campaign for Question 1, the successful push to repeal gay marriage in Maine, was funded almost entirely by churches and conservative organizations.
This comes as no surprise, nor should it to Mainers - it was loudly proclaimed that the Catholic Church was largely behind Yes on 1. Yet despite these fast facts, Mainers still sided with the church.

So what does this tell us moving forward? That we cannot rely on the old standards that those who are liberal or secular will vote for LGBT equality. That centuries of society-approved discrimination and slander of the LGBT population is still entrenched in many minds, even those that appear open-minded or self-aware, forcing the hands of voters to choose in favor of their fear and ignorance and vote against us.

Voters are rarely open to hearing a campaign's message during an initiative battle. Most of the time they have made up their minds already (while telling pollsters that they are open-minded and will vote for equality, a "Bradley Effect" of sorts that Nate Silver explains well.) People then dig into their positions and prepare for battle.

However, people are more open to hearing other opinions and positions when there isn't a raging referendum pounding at them. That's why educational campaigns are so important and so different from initiative campaigns. They exist to inform, discuss and portray the LGBT population to those who know nothing about us, while not pushing a message that they must vote for us. In time, voters' fears of what, up to this point for them, is the "unknown" becomes known and less threatening. So when the time for a ballot initiative does roll around, they're more apt to vote in favor of LGBT rights.

This doesn't happen over night. It can take years. Equality Maine has done years of educational work, and we still lost. But only by 5.6%! The margin is narrowing. I believe that margin would have been much greater if it wasn't for their outreach.

Wayne Besen has suggested that maybe a whole new strategy should be considered and not engage in degrading ballot initiatives at all (and another post). And though I agree that these referendums are unconstitutional and that maybe we should simply focus on the courts and legislature, in the meantime, we have initiatives staring us in the face.

Here in California, Courage Campaign, Equality California and Vote For Equality are all doing educational work, laying the foundation for a future initiative. Whether we go to the ballot in 2010 or 2012, we have a lot of work to do, and not a lot of time to do it. Yes on Prop 8 did a lot of damage and a lot of Californians now believe the campaign's lies as if they were gospel. If the pattern holds of failing at the ballot, we may not succeed in time in California with our educational work by either proposed year.

But charge ahead we must.

A lot of the times, we fail to keep ads with out faces on the air, to keep the radio alive with our voices. It's hard to get these messages funded when there's no impending vote, but we have to figure it out. We have to constantly remind the populace that we are here, we aren't going away, and we're deserving of equal rights. And as I've said, voters will be more willing to listen when we're not tossing attack ads back and forth. If they're willing to listen, imagine what we can accomplish!

The old adage of changing hearts and minds by telling our stories still holds true, and that is what an educational campaign is for. We do this by either talking to our neighbors, co-workers, friends and family, or to perfect strangers by knocking on doors during canvasses, or through phone calls at a phone banks. It takes patience, especially if we know a vote isn't coming soon. And it's probably the scariest thing we'll ever have to do - allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, in the face of those who may very well vote against us, or even worse, hate us, talking to each of them . . . one at a time. This can be terrifying in fact. Yet it is key to victory.

No one said the fight for equal rights was going to be easy.

Image of NO on 1 campaign manager Jesse Connolly by Rex Wockner.

1 comment:

  1. That's a great analysis. It's really difficult to rely on a majority to guarantee the rights of a minority. Here is my take on long-term strategy: