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The freedom to marry is a fundamental right that should not have to be won or defended at the ballot box. In fact, ballot initiatives are a bad way to write or rewrite laws of any kind. Unfortunately, that is the reality of American politics, which is why same-sex marriage measures on the Nov. 6 ballot in Maine, Washington, Maryland and Minnesota could turn out to be pivotal in the struggle for marriage equality.
Thanks to court rulings and legislative victories, same-sex marriage is now legal in six states and the District of Columbia, and polls show that a majority of Americans support the legalization of marriages for gay, lesbian and bisexual couples. But same-sex marriage has never won a ballot referendum.
The measure in Maine probably has the best chance of winning. Three years ago, Maine voters rejected a marriage-equality bill that had been approved by the State Legislature. But, instead of giving up, supporters of the freedom to marry went right back to knocking on doors, raising money, honing their arguments and organizing for a new vote this fall to legalize same-sex marriages.
Although recent polls of likely Maine voters are encouraging, the outcome is still far from certain. Historically, polls on such ballot tests have been misleading, and anti-marriage forces are waging a loud propaganda campaign. They are running television commercials suggesting that marriage-equality opponents would be unfairly “fired, sued, fined and punished” if the referendum passes, and that it is possible to treat gay and lesbian couples fairly while still excluding them from the right to marry. It would help if the state’s two supposedly moderate Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who is retiring, would stand up against forces of intolerance within their party by publicly supporting the referendum.
In Washington State, voters will be deciding whether to let stand the authorization of same-sex marriage handily approved by the Legislature and signed into law by the state’s Democratic governor, Christine Gregoire, in February. As in Maine, opponents of marriage equality are trying to make the fallacious argument that marriage equality would somehow harm heterosexual couples. They also insist that the domestic partnership scheme approved by voters in the state three years ago goes far enough.
The state’s Roman Catholic leaders have played a vocal role in trying to turn out a big “no” vote by Catholic parishioners. But major corporate players in the Seattle area, including Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, are supporting the measure. That is an encouraging development for the future of the issue nationwide.
Same-sex marriage also stands a chance of prevailing in Maryland, where the same-sex marriage law was narrowly approved by both chambers of the Legislature and signed in March by the state’s Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley. But the law was put off when opponents gathered sufficient signatures to toss the issue to a voter referendum.
If the law is approved by voters, the victory will owe much to the vigorous campaigning of Mr. O’Malley, the momentum created by President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality and efforts, including by the N.A.A.C.P., to bolster support among blacks, who make up nearly 30 percent of Maryland’s residents.
The issue before Minnesota voters is whether to double-down on the state’s existing law outlawing same-sex marriage by enshrining the antigay ban in the State Constitution. With polls showing a tight contest, it is hard to believe that a majority of Minnesotans would opt to place their state so sharply on the wrong side of fairness.
A version of this editorial appeared in print on October 31, 2012, on page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: Marriage on the Ballot.