Petitions validated, clearing the way for gay-rights vote
At left:Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky says sponsors of a ''people's veto'' collected 7,000 more signatures than they needed.
By Paul CarrierAUGUSTA - Opponents of a law protecting homosexuals from discrimination have collected enough signatures to let Maine voters decide whether to veto the law.
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
That was the ruling Monday from Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky, who said sponsors of a so-called ''people's veto'' collected 58,182 valid signatures on their referendum petitions. That's about 7,000 more than the number they needed to schedule a statewide referendum.
The announcement was a big victory for the Christian Civic League of Maine and the Christian Coalition of Maine, which submitted 65,256 petition signatures to Gwadosky's office Sept. 18 in their quest for a referendum.
About 7,000 petition signatures were rejected by state and local officials, mostly involving signers who were not registered to vote in the communities they listed as their homes. That still left organizers with more than enough valid signatures to meet legal requirements.
''It's exactly what we anticipated,'' said Paul Volle of the Christian Coalition of Maine. Volle predicted that gay-rights opponents will win the referendum.
''I don't have any question in my mind,'' he said.
Karen Geraghty of the Maine Won't Discriminate Coalition, which supports the law Volle wants to overturn, was equally confident.
''We expect the answer from the citizens is going to be a resounding yes'' in support of the law, Geraghty said. ''I have incredible faith in the people of Maine.''
At issue is a bill passed by the Legislature last spring that would make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation in credit, employment, housing and public accommodations.
Gov. Angus King signed the bill into law May 16, but the law cannot be implemented while a veto referendum is pending. That makes Maine the only state in New England that does not have a gay-rights law on the books. Ten states, five of them in New England, have such laws.
Gwadosky's ruling virtually assures that a referendum will be held, but supporters of the gay-rights law could appeal his decision in a final bid to block a referendum.
Maine Won't Discriminate leaders Monday said their volunteers will review opponents' petitions this week to double-check whether they contain enough valid signatures to require a referendum.
Volunteers began photocopying thousands of petitions Monday in a process that may not be completed until Wednesday. They will look primarily for duplicate signatures or signatures of nonvoters.
If Maine Won't Discriminate concludes that Gwadosky was wrong and the number of needed signatures falls short, the coalition has until Monday to appeal. A Superior Court judge then would hold a nonjury trial on the appeal and rule by Dec. 1, according to Gwadosky.
Political analysts on both sides of the issue said Monday that an appeal from gay-rights supporters, while possible, is unlikely.
Even if Maine Won't Discriminate finds some invalid signatures, analysts said, the coalition is unlikely to find 7,000 of them, because state and municipal workers have weeded out thousands of invalid signatures already.
''There's no scenario I can work out in my mind that says we won't have an election,'' said Michael Heath of the Christian Civic League. ''They're not going to find 7,000 duplicates. The secretary of state has done a pretty thorough job.''
If Gwadosky's decision is not appealed, or if his decision withstands a court challenge, a referendum will be held in a special election between this December and April 1998. That's the time frame spelled out in the state Constitution. A precise date has not been set.
King said Monday a referendum will be divisive, unfortunate and unnecessary, and will harm the state's image.
''My fundamental feeling about this is that it's just too bad that we have to go through it again,'' King said. ''I think it's essentially the same issue'' voters faced in 1995.
That year, voters defeated a referendum that would have barred municipalities from adopting gay-rights ordinances. The margin was 53 percent to 47 percent.
King campaigned against the 1995 referendum but he said Monday he did not know what role he will play this time around.
''I certainly won't be shy about making my position known,'' said King, who rejected claims by opponents of the gay-rights law that it would provide special rights to homosexuals.
''This is not special rights for anybody,'' King said. ''It's a protection of basic human rights that all of us take for granted.''
If a gay-rights referendum is held, the ballot question will read: ''Do you want to reject the law passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation with respect to jobs, housing, public accommodations and credit?''
A yes vote would veto the law, killing it. A no vote would allow the law to take effect 30 days after the election results become official.
Although Mainers have had access to the people's veto since 1910, it has not been used often. There have been only 22 people's veto referendums, most recently in 1980.
The Portland Press Herald Home Page
The Maine GayNet Archive