Same-sex marriage: In November, four states have the power to make history.

It’s going to be a nail-biting month: While Minnesotans will decide whether to ban same-sex marriage at the polls in November, voters in Washington State, Maine, and Maryland will be deciding whether to legalize same-sex marriage.

Assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio

This fall, same-sex marriage will be on the ballot like at no other time in history. There are only 13 states remaining in the United States “in play” with the potential to legalize same-sex marriage (the rest have either legalized same-sex marriage or have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage). Four of these states will vote on same-sex marriage in November. In three of those states, the election could result in legalizing same-sex marriage—a historical first.

This fall, voters in Minnesota will decide the fate of a same-sex marriage ban. I document in my book, Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, how common these same-sex marriage bans have been in the United States since 1998 when voters in Hawaii and Alaska first considered the issue of same-sex marriage. Like voters have done in more than thirty other states, Minnesota voters will consider whether or not to write a ban on same-sex marriage into their state’s constitution.

However, in voters in Washington State, Maine, and Maryland will decide whether or not to legalize same-sex marriage. Voters have only had the power to decide on legalizing same-sex marriage twice ever—in California for Proposition 8 in 2008, in which a same-sex marriage ban was passed in response to same-sex marriage legalized by the courts; and in Maine Question 1 in 2009, in which the legislature passed same-sex marriage and it was overturned in a referendum. Both times, same-sex marriage was overturned by the voters. These two ballot measures were the largest ballot measures in the history of LGBT ballot measures.

Earlier this year legislators in Washington and Maryland legalized same-sex marriage, and opponents quickly gathered signatures to put both laws on the ballot as referendums. In Washington the LGBTQ movement has had domestic partnerships for a few years, rights that were defended in a referendum in 2009. Washington organizers also have a long history of successfully sparring with the Religious Right at the ballot box. Maryland, on the other hand, is facing its first vote ever on LGBT rights with a referendum to its same-sex marriage law.

In Maine, LGBT organizers have put same-sex marriage on the ballot for the first time in history. Previously in Maine, the Religious Right has put any LGBT rights legislation up for a “people’s veto.” Rather than getting the legislature to pass same-sex marriage just to have the Religious Right put it on the ballot again, Maine organizers are controlling the timing of the referendum by putting it on the ballot themselves. After losing a referendum in 2009, Maine organizers have worked tirelessly to continue the campaign.

Although same-sex marriage bans have consistently passed across the country, there is reason to believe that this election may be different. Apart from North Carolina, the last major vote on same-sex marriage was almost three years ago. Since then, the number of states in which same-sex marriage is legal has doubled, approval of same-sex marriage has increased in all demographics, and a sitting president has come out in support of same-sex marriage. LGBT organizers have also learned from the last two major ballot measure campaigns—California Proposition 8 and Maine Question 1—and have spent the last three years learning new ways of speaking with voters about same-sex marriage. This process has resulted in a more sophisticated voter canvassing techniques and a deeper understanding of how voters think about same-sex marriage.

In addition, LGBT communities in Washington and Maine have a long and strong history of successfully fighting anti-gay ballot measures. Indeed Washington organizers defeated a challenge to the Washington domestic partnership law a few years ago. Polling data on the ballot measures also looks promising, although polling numbers have overestimated support for same-sex marriage in past ballot measures. I, for one, will be biting my nails on election day!


Amy L. Stone is assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box.

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