How Emily Will Save Maine
My student Emily, a bright, hyperkinetic junior at Watershed School, was hopping mad on Wednesday. She'd spent countless hours of precious teenage time volunteering for the No On 1 campaign, only to see marriage equality in Maine smacked down by a resounding 30,000-vote margin the night before.
Similar tales cropped up around the internet. Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic published an e-mail from one reader who reported:
"My straight son worked for the marriage equality campaign in Maine. I just got off the phone with him. He is sad and started crying. Not for himself but for those whose rights have been taken away and those who have been fighting for those rights for years. I have seldom been so proud as a mother."
The redoubtable blogger known as Bill in Portland Maine, in an affecting personal commentary at the heavily-trafficked Daily Kos, detected one ray of sunshine in Tuesday's vote: data from the main University of Maine campus at Orono showed a final tally of 81 percent in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry, with only 19 percent opposed.
"Look at that," he wrote. "That's the future of gay rights in America. It's coming. It's on our doorstep. It's just a matter of time. All Schubert-Flint and NOM and the Catholic church did last night was kick the can down the road a bit."
The man is right, of course. Anyone who spends time around young people will have noticed that their attitudes toward a whole range of controversies — not just social issues but things like health care and global climate change — differ markedly from those of their elders. In fact, I would argue that the real divide in Maine today (mirroring the nation at large) is not between liberals and conservatives, or the "real Maine" vs. the coastal fringe, but rather between the young and the old. Baby boomers like me find ourselves caught in the straddle.
Pre-election data from Public Policy Polling — which tracked closely with the actual results — found that the only age group strongly opposed to gay marriage consisted of Mainers 65 and older. "Voters under 65," the pollsters reported, "oppose the referendum by a 50-46 margin but they'll have to come out if they're going to combat the influence of the more conservative leaning older voters."
They did come out, in larger-than-usual numbers. But it wasn't enough to overcome the historical pattern whereby older citizens are disproportionately more likely to vote, especially in off-year elections, than their youthful counterparts.
You can take two things away from this. One is that, had the marriage-equality referendum taken place in a regular election year — with, say, Barack Obama at the top of the ballot — my right to marry would now be enshrined in law. But the other, more certain take-away is that, as Bill in Portland says, it's just a matter of time.
Polling guru Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com has found that, on average, public attitudes toward same-sex marriage in any given state are shifting in the pro-equality direction at a rate of "slightly less than two points" every year. This is happening without regard to any particular events in the gay-rights struggle, simply as a result of what is politely known as demographic churning: young people enter the ranks of eligible voters every day, while older ones, shall we say, become inactive.
On this basis, Silver lists Maine as a state likely to reach the tipping-point this year, 2009. And indeed an accretion of polling data suggests that this is the case: that support for equal marriage rights now runs roughly neck-and-neck with the opposition. Next year it will be a little higher, and the year after that, and the year after that ... and one of these years, that nice lesbian couple down the road will be able to put on wedding dresses. All good things in time.
In this morning's editorial, "After Question 1," the Bangor Daily News finds an instructive historic parallel — the zig-zag route toward enactment of full voting rights for women in this state:
"After the Legislature strongly endorsed women’s suffrage in 1917, a people’s veto took back those voting rights. Two years later, however, Maine voters changed course and voted to ratify the 19th Amendment."
So there you go. People's veto, people's schmeto. And if I sound like a 16-year-old, so be it. I proudly align myself with Maine's future.