How Maryland's gay marriage vote could echo beyond blue states

Maryland is one of three states that could be the first to endorse gay marriage by popular vote. The Nov. 6 referendum will be a test for African-Americans and could hint at a shift in suburbia.

Gary Cameron/REUTERS
People line up for early voting in Silver Spring, Md., late last month. Question 6 on the Maryland ballot is a referendum petition that, if passed, allows gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license.

The deep-blue state of Maryland isn’t the home to much presidential election drama. This year, however, the Old Line State could help snap gay marriage's 14-year losing streak at the ballot box.

Since 1998, 31 states have considered ballot initiatives about gay marriage, and all 31 have voted against it. But when Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed a bill in March to legalize gay marriage, conservative lawmakers put the law before voters as a popular referendum Nov. 6 in a bid to stop it. If voters support the law – as polls suggest they will – the referendum could mark the first time in US history that state voters have approved same-sex marriage.

While six states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage, they have done so through legislation or court order. None have been approved by voters.

Come Election Day, Maryland could join two other states as the first to reverse this trend. Like Maryland, Washington State is holding a referendum on an already-passed law legalizing gay marriage. Polls show it ahead. A Maine initiative would permit gay marriages without prior legislative action. Polls show pro-gay marriage forces ahead there, too.

In Minnesota, voters will decide whether to outlaw gay marriage while allowing civil unions. Polls show a tight contest.

A victory in any one of those states would be historic – but because Maryland’s polls close alongside Maine’s, those two states have a chance to slide into the history books a little ahead of their western counterparts.

That is, if tightening polls in Maryland don’t replicate something advocates on both sides know all too well: Public opinion on marriage equality is notoriously difficult to pin down.

“Some [polls] are better than others, but they certainly can’t be taken at face value for the way that people are going to vote,” says Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, which is one of the major funders of the Maryland opposition to the ballot question.

One big swing group for Question 6, as it's called, is the African-American vote – nearly guaranteed Democratic voters who are socially conservative. Recent polls have shown backsliding support for Question 6 among African-Americans – who make up between a quarter and a third of the electorate – from about 6 in 10 to roughly evenly divided.

That’s despite the endorsement of gay marriage from President Obama, the NAACP, and black pastors including the Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md.

“This is about protecting everyone equally under the law,” Mr. Coates says. “This isn’t about your personal views about homosexuality, or your view on this or that Bible verse.”

Coates believes the question will pass, and that it will give hope to other states with large African-American communities to try to explain the issue of gay marriage through civil rights.

If Maryland voters back Question 6, it could be historic for second reason, as well: Maryland would join Washington, D.C., as the southernmost frontier of same-sex marriage.

“For marriage equality to pass by popular vote for the first time would be a game-changer,” says Kevin Nix, a spokesman for Marylanders for Marriage Equality. “Not only for the issue but for Maryland in particular because it would be the first state below the Mason-Dixon Line that has marriage equality.”

While Mr. Brown of the National Organization for Marriage believes gay-marriage opponents will prevail, he argues that even they don't, the vote is not a game changer.

“If it is going to happen, we still have the overwhelming reality that the overwhelming majority of states have voted to” defeat same-sex marriage, he says. “Any state that would vote to do it would be an extreme outlier... That’s not the whole battle.”

But the battle elsewhere in the nation may pivot on people like state Sen. James Brochin. A conservative white Democrat from the wealthy Baltimore exurb of Towson, he initially said he would vote against gay marriage on the grounds that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

But through the informal lobbying of gay friends – like folks he worked with at the snack bar at his daughter’s swim meets – a few particularly revelatory legislative hearings in Annapolis, and the inability to get his preferred legislation allowing civil unions instead of same-sex marriages passed, he gave the marriage-equality bill his support.

“I’m listening to the opposition, and they’re not talking about the word marriage, they’re talking about, ‘Gay people are pedophiles,’ ” Senator Brochin says. “I mean, are you kidding me? This is the side I’m going to be on? This is the legacy I’m going to have? They don’t want them to have the same rights – I want them to have the same rights.”

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