Beneath the drama of the presidential race, another issue may be making a historic turn Tuesday. For the first time, it is possible, even likely, that voters will approve gay marriage in one or more states.
While recognition of gay rights has been one of the fastest moving social changes ever recorded, the cause has fared poorly with voters. That may be about to change.
Public attitudes toward homosexuality have gone from almost universal tolerance of overt bigotry to almost equally ubiquitous acceptance of gay and lesbian friends, neighbors, co-workers and relatives in little more than a generation. It is a societal shift of which all Americans should be proud.
At the same time, the law has lagged behind. And the same public that enjoyed “Will & Grace” or the lesbian wedding on “Friends” has been the worst offender.
Same-sex marriage is now legal in six states and the District of Columbia. That came about, however, as the result of legislative actions and court rulings. Same-sex marriage has yet to win at the polls.
On the contrary, 32 state votes have gone against it. That includes the notorious Proposition 8 in otherwise socially progressive California and an overwhelming defeat of same-sex marriage earlier this year in North Carolina.
That may be about to change. Same-sex marriage is on the ballot in four state – Washington, Minnesota, Maryland and Maine – and may well be approved in at least one.
The details vary. In Minnesota, the issue is whether to enshrine an existing state law banning same-sex marriage in the state’s constitution. Defeating that measure, while obviously desirable, would not markedly advance same-sex marriage.
In the other three states, however, the issue is more straightforward. In Washington and Maryland, voters are being asked whether to let stand same-sex marriage bills approved by those states’ legislatures. And in Maine, where observers think it has the best chance of passage, the voters are simply being asked to approve same-sex marriage.
The 0-for-32 record that same-sex marriage has at the polls may not be predictive of where things are headed. The magazine The Atlantic reports polls show voters favoring same-sex marriage by solid margins in Maine and Maryland, and by a slim lead in Washington. But The New York Times says corporate heavy-hitters in Seattle, such as Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, are backing the same-sex marriage measure and could tip the scales. Only in Minnesota is the issue behind.
Think close to home as well. In 1992, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure that would have prohibited any town, city or county from protecting the rights of gays and lesbians. It was rightly struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, but a majority of Colorado voters had voted for it.
Saturday, The Denver Post reported the results of a poll showing “nearly 70 percent of Coloradans support some sort of legal recognition for gay couples, but more favor marriage over civil unions.”
In detail, 36 percent back same-sex marriage, 32 percent favor civil unions and 6 percent are undecided. Only 27 percent opposed any legal recognition of same-sex unions.
True, the passage of Amendment 2 happened 20 years ago. But for public opinion essentially to reverse itself on such a supposedly fundamental issue in one generation is remarkable. And it is something about which Americans can be justifiably proud.
It is always hard to identify a tipping point at the time. But on Tuesday, watch more than the Electoral College. Look to Maine and the other states voting on same-sex marriage. It could be history in the making.