HISTORY TEACHES THAT CIVIL RIGHTS ARE IN DANGER IN MAINE
Column: John W. Porter
Low turnout and and a slim margin are likely.
©Copyright 1998 Guy Gannett Communications
Ask yourself if this doesn't this sound familiar.
The Maine Legislature passes an act that, at the time, is controversial, but has backing from many in the public, especially the state's business community. Some, however, object to the law on religious grounds, and the Christian Civic League of Maine gathers signatures on a petition for a ''people's veto.'' A vote is set for February.
While you may think this is a recounting of the events surrounding the extension of civil rights protections to gay and lesbian people in 1997, it is not. Rather, it is a story that dates back more than 30 years.
In 1965 the Legislature passed a law allowing hotels, restaurants and clubs to sell liquor, and stores to sell beer, after noon on Sundays. It had strong backing from business interests. Members of the Christian Civic League and others, however, wanted to keep their religious beliefs as government policy, and fought to keep Sundays dry.
The League led a petition drive to have the law overturned, and the outcome of that effort holds powerful lessons regarding this Tuesday's vote on whether to retain Maine's law protecting the civil rights of its homosexual citizens.
On Feb. 22, 1966, Mainers awoke to the news that, by the thinnest of margins, the state voted to sell liquor on Sundays. (Interestingly, the ballot was worded so that a ''yes'' vote meant retaining the law, while a ''no'' vote would get rid of it. Far less confusing than the wording of the Feb. 10 question, which requires a ''no'' vote to keep the law in question.)
The margin was so close, however, that a recount was ordered. After considerable legal wrangling, the final official tally was 100,986 votes in favor of the law and 102,492 against it, a 1,506-vote, or 0.7 percent, margin. Turnout was low that day, about 25 percent of eligible voters.
One lesson, then, is that February elections don't bring voters out in droves. Another lesson is that in a referendum with such a low voter turnout, the election can be decided by a handful of people.
Today, Maine officially has 953,000 registered voters, which is high for a state of 1.2 million people. That suggests that local clerks aren't doing a good job of cleaning up voting lists after people move out town.
Say for argument, though, that turnout is 25 percent of that number, or 238,000 people, on Feb. 10. That makes poll numbers showing two-thirds of Mainers in favor of civil rights for gay and lesbian people meaningless in terms of predicting the outcome of this election.
We know, for instance, that more 60,000 people are against this idea and, because they signed the petition to put the question on the ballot, they're likely to get to the polls. Assuming a 25-percent turnout, that gives the folks in favor of discrimination a 25-percentage-point head start on an issue that could be decided by a few thousand, possibly a few hundred, votes statewide.
And then there's the squishy factor of motivation. If you are a live-and-let-live kind of person, you're probably against discriminating against gay and lesbian people. If live-and-let-live does indeed describe you, however, that suggests you're also a person whose interest level is not terribly high. Some bad weather on Tuesday, and you stay home by the fire.
Now let's suppose you view gay and lesbian people as a threat to society's moral fabric or even, perhaps, to your children. Live-and-let-live does not describe you, and the ice storm of the century won't keep you from the voting booth.
All this leaves me with a bad feeling about the outcome on Tuesday. It would be a huge setback for this state to vote in favor of discriminating against gay and lesbian people. It would, I'm convinced, be an outcome that goes against the wishes of a majority of the state's citizens
Elections are not entirely popularity contests, however. Winning an election is a complicated mix of winning the argument with voters and then motivating those who share your views to get to the polls.
The challenge for those favoring a ''no'' vote on Tuesday is not so much winning the argument. The polls suggest they've done that.
What the ''no'' side hasn't done is explain why it is in people's interest to vote their way. Mainers need to hear that it's time the state settled this issue once and for all; that Maine's economy will suffer if the state is perceived as intolerant; that their friends, neighbors and they themselves can become the object of discrimination.
Time is running out on those arguments and, despite the opinion polls, Maine could find itself voting for discrimination come Tuesday.
John W. Porter (e-mail) is an editorial writer for The Portland Newspapers.
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