The political universes of Yale University and the state of Maine may, to the casual observer, seem more or less unrelated. That is, until a referendum for legalizing same-sex marriage appeared on the Pine Tree State’s ballot this October. In response to the news, the Yale Women’s Center began a flurry of activity around campus urging students to help phone bank for marriage equality in hopes of influencing Maine voters when election time came. What was unclear, however, was how the organization intended to justify the legitimacy of their involvement in an out-of-state election. There are only 32 students from Maine at Yale, and Connecticut students cannot register in another state. A Maine native myself, I felt odd getting involved, unsure of how Yale students could appropriately enter my home state’s politics. Do non-Mainers have the right to try and influence the voting choices of Maine citizens?
On the American political battleground, Maine is usually overlooked. Nationally, its two electoral votes cause little uproar, especially since its citizens are able to divide them as they choose. The state’s policies traditionally focus on taxes and education. But, as a state of older and 98% white citizens, it tends to lean right on social issues, most noticeably in areas of “traditional values” like marriage. So when Maine’s legislature passed the Marriage Equality Act in May granting marriage rights to same-sex couples, many of the state’s citizens balked. Conservative Mainers called in Californian petitioners, many of whom had been active supporters of Prop 8 in their home state, to overturn the bill. As a referendum state, Maine citizens have a fixed period of a time after a bill is enacted to collect 58,000 signatures and push the issue to the November ballot. With the help of the out-of-state petitioners, the Marriage Equality bill went referendum, leaving its fate in the hands of Maine’s divided citizenry. Just four days before the vote, the polls were exactly divided at 48% yes and 48% no.
In an effort to improve turnout, motivated Yalies began calling thousands of registered Maine voters on a weekly basis. With the slogan “Yale for Maine Equality,” some students even made the four-hour trek to Maine to go door-to-door and speak with voters directly about the issue. In the weeks before the election students made over 1200 calls, and campaigners returned from Maine feeling that they had truly made a difference in the prospective voting turnout. “I think, at the very least, if we didn’t change any minds, we humanized the issue for a lot of people,” said one canvasser.
Despite the admirable intentions of the Yale students involved, I began to fear the effects of their actions. I myself was so divided on the issue that I didn’t even feel comfortable joining the phone bank. And if I didn’t feel comfortable, how would conservative Mainers react to phone calls from liberal Yalies telling them how to vote? Would even moderate voters feel that their local politics were being undermined by the rest of the nation?
Other Mainers seemed to share these concerns. Alan, a 44-year-old mill manager in Waterville, Maine said, “If it’s a state issue, it’s people in the state that should be involved in the issue, not people from out of state. I decide on my own politics, so someone calling me and trying to convince me otherwise is just not effective.” The older generation of Mainers seemed even more adamantly against outside involvement from anyone on any issue. Gerry, a 72-year-old retiree says he doesn’t appreciate political calls of any kind, whether the agenda is marriage or road repair. “When the phone rings during election time,” he says, “I don’t even answer.”
Even Mainers who appreciated the Yalies’ efforts questioned their effectiveness. Laura, a 43-year-old math teacher in Fairfield, ME is torn on the issue. “When it comes to equality, it can’t just be a state issue,” she says. “But, outside involvement could be dangerous by turning Mainers away [from the polls].” Tao Mason (SY ’13), a Maine native, shares similar sentiments. “I wouldn’t be swayed by a phone call,” he says, “but maybe they will convince someone, and I think they could be satisfied with the small progress of making one person think harder about the issue.”
So was the presence of outside parties—including Yale— detrimental to Maine’s fight for equality? We’ll never really know. But regardless of the strides made by the Yale petitioners, Maine and the country alike suffered a loss on the civil rights front in the early morning hours on November 4th when, with 86% of precincts reporting, voters repealed Maine Marriage Equality Act, 53% Yes to 47% No.
Before I packed up for my freshman year at Yale, more than one person said to me, “You bring those people some good Maine conservative sense, you hear?” From the start, it was strikingly clear that many Mainers see Yale as a major epicenter of radical left-wing craziness. But maybe Maine and Yale are closer than either would admit, if not with respect to politics but with respect to political practice. What matters to the Mainers who called in conservative Californians to push the bill to referendum and the Yalies who trekked 400 miles up north is not a question of state rights. Rather, it is the conviction that some issues transcend state borders.