AUGUSTA — A simple 10-word question that could appear on the November ballot isn’t making either side of the gay marriage campaign happy.
Both sides say they wish it took a slightly different tack, though for different reasons.
The proposed question — “Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?” — was released Thursday by Secretary of State Charlie Summers.
The wording of the question is significantly shorter than what was proposed by activists who gathered the signatures to put the issue on the November election ballot. In addition to asking voters if they wanted to allow same-sex couples to get marriage licenses, their question made reference to “ensuring no religion or clergy be required to perform such a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.”
Matt McTighe, campaign manager for gay-marriage supporters Mainers United for Marriage, said in a statement that Summers’ question only addresses one of two important elements of the proposed law.
“Unfortunately, the question does not address the parts of the proposed law that protect religious freedom by ensuring no religion or clergy be required to perform a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs,” he said. “More than 105,000 Maine voters signed petitions that included information about both parts of the law. Ideally, the language of the question would reflect that full explanation.”
Bob Emrich, campaign manager for opponents Protect Marriage Maine, said he would have liked the question to ask voters whether they want to change the definition of marriage.
But, overall, he’s glad it’s a simple statement that won’t confuse voters.
“We won’t complain if it’s left the way it is now,” he said. “At least this is a simple yes or no.”
Emrich said that it’s unnecessary to include the religious exemption in the question because that’s already covered by the First Amendment. Government can’t require religious entities to perform marriages and that won’t change even if gay and lesbian couples are allowed to get married.
“It’s misleading and redundant,” he said of the religious exemption language. “I will do everything I can to voice an objection to putting that back into it.”
By late afternoon, the Christian Civic League, which is working with Emrich to defeat the ballot measure, sent an email urging those in opposition to gay marriage to send Summers a letter expressing support for the question as written. On Tuesday, Summers was elected the Republican nominee to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Both sides of the campaign — and the public — have 30 days to tell Summers what they think of the question. Once the public comment period ends July 16, Summers will release final wording, said Megan Sanborn, spokeswoman for Summers. After that, there’s a 10 day appeal period.
The process for deciding the wording of ballot questions has been in place since 2007. In 2010, the wording of a casino question was changed in response to complaints from Dennis Bailey of the group CasinosNO!
Bailey said the original question indicated the casino would be located in Biddeford, when the wording of the law allowed it to be built anywhere within a 25-mile limit of Scarborough Downs. Summers agreed to change the question and Bailey said he thinks it’s important for groups to fight for the right wording. Bailey is not working on either side of the gay-marriage campaign.
“I think people go in and look, and if they see something they didn’t realize, it does have an impact,” he said.
Sanborn said the office is open to making changes if there’s a compelling reason.
“Usually if we get enough comments to add something or change something our office will do that, if voters will benefit from that,” she said.
Sanborn said a group of people considered several versions of the gay-marriage question. The group included Summers, Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, Chief Deputy Barbara Redmond and Phyllis Gardiner, an assistant attorney general. Sanborn said the wording was based on the question submitted by advocates.
Three other states are expected to consider gay-marriage related questions this year, but Maine is the only state in the country where voters will be asked if they support gay marriage. Maryland and Washington state voters will be asked if they want to repeal state laws that allow gay marriage and Minnesota voters are considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
The most recent vote on the issue came in May in North Carolina, where voters supported a constitutional ban with 61 percent of the vote. There, voters were asked if they were for or against a “Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”
When it comes to the wording in Maine, MaryEllen FitzGerald, who runs the Critical Insights polling firm in Portland, said the proposed wording from Summers is incomplete because it does not mention the religious exemption. FitzGerald has not been paid by either side during this campaign, she said.
“It sounds to me like it’s more of a philosophical question than a legislative approach,” she said.
To average voters, the exact wording of the question isn’t likely to be a deciding factor, said Marvin Druker, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston-Auburn campus.
“I’m not sure everybody reads it when they go to vote,” he said. “They know if they are going to favor it or oppose it. I’m not sure the wording itself will make that much difference.”
Susan Cover — 621-5643