Thoughts for an Election Day post-mortem

Posted Nov. 06, 2009, at 6:27 p.m.

It was weird the way the vote in a Bangor Daily News daily poll question on current events mirrored, in percentages, the performance of voters on Question 1 in this week’s election.

On Tuesday, 53 percent of Maine residents voting on Question 1 favored repeal of the state’s same-sex marriage law, while 47 percent voted to keep the law that had been enacted by the Legislature and signed by Gov. John Baldacci in May.

On Wednesday, the paper’s unscientific daily poll of readers asked, “Were you surprised by the Question 1 results?” Fifty-three percent of the unusually high number of respondents (4,611) in the poll indicated that they had been astonished, leaving 47 percent to profess that the outcome hadn’t surprised them at all.

Although at first glance the dueling 53-47 percentages would seem to certify Tuesday’s six-point margin of victory for the forces of repeal, the newspaper poll result begged the question: Just which faction was surprised, and why?

Was the 53 percentage bloc of surprised BDN poll respondents made up mainly of representatives of the 47 percent of voters on the losing side of Tuesday’s referendum Question 1, and were they surprised because they had lost? Or did the readers expressing surprise in the BDN poll come preponderantly from the prevailing side in Tuesday’s voting, and were they surprised because they had won?

Conversely, were the nonsurprised stalwarts in the newspaper poll not surprised because they are unflappable souls, not given to that sort of thing? Or were they not surprised because they had been sure that the demographics — the urban-rural divide that defines Maine’s differing views on marriage, depicted so dramatically in a front-page graphic in Thursday’s newspaper — would tip the vote in favor of repeal?

There is no way of knowing, I suppose, just as it may never be known why the straightforward constitutional amendment proposed in Question 7 on Tuesday’s ballot got shot down by the electorate.

It’s difficult to imagine a more innocuous proposal than this one which would have given municipal clerks more time to certify signatures on direct initiative petitions submitted by Maine residents seeking to insert themselves into the legislative process.

Backed by the Maine Town and City Clerks Association, the amendment would not have cut into the time allotted for the gathering of the thousands of signatures required to get a referendum question on the ballot. It represented a win-win situation for all parties involved and was not “repugnant to the Constitution” of Maine, to employ language used by framers of that document at the pre-statehood constitutional convention of 1819 in Portland.

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn told BDN reporter Christopher Cousins two weeks ago that the run-up to this week’s election was a prime example of the need for the change. She noted that in late 2008, five petition drives were nearing completion, including those that led to four questions on Tuesday’s ballot. Each drive needed 55,087 verified signatures, a figure that represents 10 percent of the turnout in the last gubernatorial election. Municipal clerks, working overtime in many cases, were hard-pressed to meet their deadlines while simultaneously maintaining a happy face for the public.

A bill creating the proposed constitutional amendment, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Beaudette, D-Biddeford, sailed through the Legislature as an apple pie-and-motherhood issue that drew nary an unkind word. If there was a sure thing on Tuesday’s ballot upon which to bet your week’s paycheck, it seemed that approval of this proposition would be it.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the polls. More than 543,000 Mainers voted on the issue, which was a pretty fair Election Day turnout for this type of off-year ho-hummer. This was a good thing. Unfortunately for the municipal clerks, 52 percent of those voters gave the proposition two thumbs down, while only 48 percent gave it two thumbs up. For paycheck-betting purposes, that was not such a good thing.

The consensus among several clerks I spoke with after the election was that the proposal was likely upstaged by sexier fare on the menu. Many voters may not have understood what the change entailed, and on that basis had declined to vote for it, they suggested.

The skeptic in me has a different theory, which is that the question was so simply put it aroused voter suspicion. Like a hitter in baseball badly fooled by a fastball when expecting a curve ball, an electorate weaned on rations of confusing ballot questions worded so “yes” means “no,” and vice versa, does not easily make such a sudden adjustment to truth in advertising, if you will, or candor in politics.

As my Down East friends would tell you, “It’s hahd.”

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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