PORTLAND – Voters defeated an effort to repeal the state’s new gay rights law Tuesday with supporters of the law declaring victory shortly after 11 p.m. to a cheering crowd of more than 500 people at the Holiday Inn By the Bay.
“I think Maine people have heard our message that discrimination happens and real people get hurt,” said Ted O’Meara, the senior adviser to the Maine Won’t Discriminate campaign, as he reflected after midnight when unofficial totals showed 55 percent rejecting the repeal and 45 percent in favor, with 86 percent of precincts reporting.
“Our campaign was one of compassion. Theirs was one of condemnation,” he said.
But despite the numbers, the law’s opponents were not yet ready to throw in the towel with several precincts in their stronghold of Aroostook County yet to report.
“We’re not conceding until all the votes are in,” said Paul Madore of the Maine Grassroots Coalition, a Lewiston-based group that helped put the repeal measure on the Nov. 8 ballot.
In Gov. John Baldacci’s hometown of Bangor, considered a key area of the state for both campaigns, 61 percent of voters rejected the repeal with 39 percent in favor. The law’s supporters also won in Lewiston, a city that has soundly rejected past gay rights initiatives.
The vote “reaffirms the basic values that are intrinsic in Maine,” said Baldacci, who signed the law earlier this year before it was put on hold by the pending referendum. “Mainers don’t like discrimination. … If it happens to one person, it happens to all of us.”
Question 1 on the Maine ballot asked voters if they wanted to repeal the state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in areas including housing, employment and education.
The law’s supporters, who raised and spent close to $1 million while trying to sway voters in the campaign’s last few weeks, said the new law was a matter of fairness designed to combat documented cases of bias against gays in the state.
Opponents contended it would lead to same-sex marriage by granting legal recognition to a group based on their sexual orientation.
Victory at the ballot box had been elusive for gay rights supporters.
In the last 10 years, Mainers have been difficult to pin down on the issue with voters in 1995 soundly rejecting an attempt to repeal local gay rights initiatives and prohibit the future adoption of others. In 1998 and 2000, voters rejected gay rights initiatives similar to that being considered Tuesday.
Voter turnout has played a key role in past elections, and before Tuesday’s referendum, state elections officials had predicted that turnout could reach 50 percent – a harbinger of good fortune for the law’s supporters, according to many political observers.
Pre-Election Day polls – although they have proven unreliable in predicting past votes – had also given gay rights groups cause for hope heading into Nov. 8 with some surveys showing that more than 60 percent of Mainers oppose the repeal.
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who oversees state elections, traveled from Biddeford to Old Town on the sunny but blustery Tuesday checking in with town clerks and assessing voter turnout, which he had earlier predicted could reach between 45 and 50 percent.
“It’s picking up now,” Dunlap said during a stop at the Augusta State Armory, where after an early afternoon lull, voters once again began to meander through the doors.
With 85 percent of precincts reported, voter turnout appeared headed for close to 40 percent, according to unofficial results compiled by the Bangor Daily News.
Dunlap’s prediction of a higher turnout appeared to come to fruition in some towns. In the Penobscot County town of Hampden, voters waited patiently in line midmorning for an opening in one of the 25 voting booths lining the walls at the town hall.
Shortly after he emerged from one of those booths, John Harriman, a 59-year-old contractor, explained his “yes” vote on Question 1 while walking through the busy parking lot outside the polling place.
“I’m old-fashioned,” said a smiling Harriman, who has opposed the issue in past elections as well. “I don’t believe in the other way.”
Hampden, like much of Penobscot County, has not been supportive of past gay rights initiatives. In 2000, the last time voters considered the issue, 57 percent of Hampden voters rejected gay rights – a mirror of the county totals.
But this year, Hampden voters by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent opposed the repeal effort. Penobscot County stood at 51 percent to 49 percent against the repeal.
One major exception within the county has been its largest city, Bangor, where voters by and large have approved gay rights initiatives by comfortable margins. On Tuesday, Maine Won’t Discriminate won in the city by about 1,800 votes of 8,500 cast.
In Bangor, one of about a dozen Maine communities with a local gay rights ordinance, local author Virginia Sand was among the estimated 30 percent of city residents who voted on Tuesday.
“I believe in diversity. It is what makes this planet sing,” said Sand, 48, who listed among her reasons for supporting the new law the ill effects of past discrimination on her Franco-American ancestors.
“If voters say ‘no’ [to the repeal], that would be great progress for the state of Maine,” Sand added before stopping to talk to a local city council candidate positioned outside the polls at the Bangor Civic Center. “It would go a long way to bringing the state into the 21st century.”
The law is now likely to take effect by year’s end. The secretary of state has until Nov. 28 to make the election results final. The governor must then sign a proclamation certifying the results, and the law would take effect 30 days after that signing, according to state elections officials.
Tuesday’s vote was a referendum on the law, enacted earlier this year, to amend the Maine Human Rights Act by making discrimination illegal in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations and education based on sexual orientation.
The Maine law already prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, disability, religion, ancestry and national origin. The gay rights provision was broadly worded to protect transsexuals, transvestites and those who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery, in addition to homosexuals.
The law exempts religious organizations that do not receive public funds. It also is worded to say it is not meant to address a right to marry.
Do you want to reject the new law that would protect people from discrimination in employment, housing, education, public accommodations and credit based on their sexual orientation?
Correction: Earlier versions of this article ran in the State and Coastal editions.