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New Hampshire Rejects Marriage Equality Repeal

March 23, 2012

OK, I’ll admit it, this one took me by surprise.  The heavily Republican New Hampshire House of Representatives this week rejected a bill to repeal marriage equality in that state.  New Hampshire thus remains one of six states where same-sex marriages can legally be performed.  (Maryland and Washington have both approved marriage equality laws, but those laws haven’t become effective yet.)

New Hampshire enacted marriage equality in 2009 only after a protracted struggle, and even then by relatively close votes that depended heavily on what were then Democratic majorities in both houses of the New Hampshire legislature.  The final vote in the New Hampshire House was 198 – 176, with 189 of the yes votes coming from Democrats and only 9 of the yes votes coming from Republicans.  The final vote in the New Hampshire Senate was 14 – 10, a straight party-line vote.  It wasn’t clear until the eleventh hour of the debate that New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, a Democrat who said he personally opposed gay marriage, would sign the bill.

So when the 2010 elections gave Republicans veto-proof majorities in both houses, the prospects for marriage equality in New Hampshire looked grim.  But the House voted against repeal this week, and the vote was not close:  211 – 116 against repeal.  The vote was on a motion to designate the bill “inexpedient to legislate,” which is definitely the coolest bureaucratic description of killing a bill I’ve ever seen, and an entirely apt description in this case.  Even the Republican vote broke against repeal.  Republicans supported the inexpediency motion by 119 – 115, while Democrats slam-dunked it, 92 – 1.

What happened between 2009 and 2012?

The main thing that happened may be that gay couples got married in New Hampshire and the sky did not fall.  God smote down no New Hampshire towns, and, although gas prices went up some, the sun continued to rise in the east pretty much every morning.

New Hampshire marriage equality polling, which had been more or less on a par with national polling, pulled out ahead of the national average.  In a poll released by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in October 2011, 62 percent opposed repeal of same-sex marriage – 50 percent strongly opposed – and 27 percent favored repeal.

Politicians respond to polls, and of course repeal of marriage equality feels a little bit different than opposing the establishment of marriage equality in the first place.  On almost every issue, there is at least a small sliver of public opinion that opposes something when it’s adopted, but opposes repealing it once it’s there.  (In California, in 2008, that sliver wasn’t quite big enough to retain same-sex marriage rights there.)

Another change from 2009 to 2012 is that in 2012, Governor Lynch made his position clear from the beginning – he firmly and clearly opposed marriage equality repeal.

As goes New Hampshire, it’s not clear that anyone else goes.  New Hampshire is a moderate state, inclined to Democrats in recent presidential elections.  The state is not especially racially diverse, and not especially religious.  New Hampshire, like New England generally, has an independent, individualistic streak – which of course is what made New Hampshire one of the first states in the country to adopt marriage equality.

Maybe New Hampshire bodes well for Maine, where marriage equality supporters recently submitted enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot in November.  The most recent polling shows Mainers favoring marriage equality, 54 to 41 percent.

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