Vicky Hartzler is in a celebrating mood. The spokesperson for the Coalition to Protect Marriage in Missouri, Hartzler has spent the week fielding calls about the landslide August 3 victory of her state’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The amendment, which says that “a marriage shall exist only between a man and a woman,” was approved by 70 percent of voters—a significantly greater margin than polls predicted. Nearly 41 percent of the electorate turned out, and by some estimates, at least 48 percent of Democrats voted to approve the measure.
“We are very pleased with the overwhelming support,” Hartzler tells the Voice. “People were motivated by frustration and values. Frustration, because they’re tired of seeing the judicial system circumvent the will of the people to advance a liberal agenda. Values, because people value traditional marriage and they don’t want to see that wiped away by a few judges. They think God had a good plan in the beginning and we should go forward with it.”
The Missouri vote means people who hold that belief have suddenly become major players in the presidential election. As many as 10 amendments banning same-sex marriage will be on November ballots, and many in the Democratic Party are concerned that the issue will turn out the right-wing religious vote in favor of the Bush-Cheney ticket—especially in swing states like Michigan (17 electoral votes), Oregon (seven), and Arkansas (six).
“The primary reason that these vicious initiatives have been unleashed against us is to energize the vote for George Bush,” says Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “I understand what they’re doing. The question is, is it going to work?”
Right now, no one is ready to make that call. The Kerry-Edwards campaign is distancing itself from any perception that Democrats favor gay marriage; in an interview published August 6, John Kerry said he would have voted for the Missouri amendment himself. (The senator has said he favors a civil-union option, which would be precluded by some of the amendments on the ballot in November, although not by the one in Missouri.)
The Bush-Cheney campaign, meanwhile, has apparently enlisted Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell to rally the troops around that state’s pending gay-marriage amendment, which is much harsher than the Missouri version. Ohio’s 20 electoral votes could be part of a package deal.
While the potential impact on the Bush-Kerry matchup is still uncertain, it’s clear that many of the marriage amendments have an excellent chance of passing and that the rhetoric is going to be incendiary. In Oregon, the Defense of Marriage Coalition recently sent a letter to voters claiming that if same-sex marriage is legalized, “Public schools will be forced to teach that ‘gay’ marriage is equal to traditional marriage” and that “more children will be denied a traditional family.”
“We’re going to have a very difficult time winning these,” says the NGLTF’s Foreman. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to win some.” Oregon, where there’s a history of battling back anti-gay ballot initiatives, is one place anti-amendment forces might prevail. Things are dicier in the other states with amendments on the November ballot: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Montana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and most likely Ohio. Louisiana will vote on the issue in September.
Anti-amendment forces are facing an electorate that’s already mobilized. Petition drives to put the issue before voters, launched in the wake of the Massachusetts supreme court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, have in many states resulted in nearly double the number of signatures required.
“We were pleasantly surprised,” said John Thomas, spokesperson for the Arkansas Marriage Amendment Committee. His group needed 80,570 signatures to get the issue before the voters. They set “a personal goal” of 160,000. And they ended up turning in more than 200,000. “We got motivated by what happened in Massachusetts,” said Thomas. “We said, we need to prepare for what might happen in Arkansas. If someone were to marry in Massachusetts and then come here, the courts would have to look at our constitution.” Arkansas’s existing law against gay marriage, Thomas said, might not stand.
It wasn’t just Arkansans who were geared up by the Massachusetts case. In Oregon, the Defense of Marriage Coalition needed 100,840 signatures and turned in approximately 244,000. In Montana, where 41,020 signatures were required, 70,000 were submitted.
And in Michigan, the signature drive picked up steam so quickly that opponents were caught by surprise. “The amendment was defeated by the legislature in the spring,” said Wendy Howell, campaign manager for the Coalition for a Fair Michigan. “Given the time frame, people thought it was dead.” But with county-by-county organizing, as well as paid signature-gathering by a professional petition contractor, pro-amendment forces came up with 482,590 signatures by the July 5 deadline; they needed about 317,000.
Marlene Elwell, campaign manager of Michigan’s Citizens for the Protection of Marriage, said that her group hired professional help because of the tight deadline but the signatures gathered that way accounted for only about 50,000 of the total. “As it turned out, we didn’t really need it,” she said.
The Michigan names have yet to be certified, but amendment opponents are already looking ahead to November. They’re aware that they’re facing a focused and energetic opponent. “The real passion for the issue is in the LGBT community and the far right wing,” says Howell. “And let’s face it, there are a lot more of them.”
In another key swing state, Ohio, amendment supporters recently submitted 391,000 signatures. After invalid names are thrown out, the total might fall short of the required 322,899. But according to Alan Melamed, campaign manager for Ohioans Protecting the Constitution, the anti-gay-marriage group (Ohioans to Protect Marriages) can keep collecting throughout the review process, then for an additional 10 days if the secretary of state rules they don’t have enough. So while Melamed’s group is going to mount a challenge, they’re also getting ready for a battle at the ballot box.
Melamed said an anti-amendment campaign would focus, among other things, on the effect the amendment would have on the state’s employers. “Four of our major universities passed domestic-partner benefits,” said Melamed. “They need it to be competitive.”
The anti-amendment campaign would also appeal to conservatives who think the ballot proposal is too broadly worded. “We have the author of Ohio’s Defense of Marriage Act . . . who says he wouldn’t put his stamp of approval on it,” Melamed said. “The Republican governor says this goes too far.”
But NGLTF’s Foreman thinks such theoretical arguments can’t carry the day. “We have to address the issue of same-sex marriage head-on,” he said. “We need to debate this issue in real-life terms, how not having marriage hurts our families in profound ways. The only time we’ve ever won is when we speak the truth. Then, when the other side pushes back, people can see it for the ugliness it is. It’s not a bloodless fight.”
Pro-amendment activists insist it can be exactly that. “We don’t plan on participating in an ugly debate,” says Michigan’s Elwell. “There’s nothing ugly to us about family.”
And in Missouri, Vicky Hartzler said she’s not worried that gay people will be harassed as a result of fallout from the amendment fight. “Most of the people who are for traditional marriage believe in loving each other and following the law,” she says. “That is, if they’re Christian people and follow Jesus’ example.”
As for the November election, Hartzler said she and her group have yet to decide what role they will play. “I’m just going to go forward,” she said, “doing what Jesus wants me to do.”
Research assistance: Kris Wilton