Same-sex marriage looms as issue in Florida governor's race

Cox NewspapersJuly 9, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- A same-sex marriage ballot proposal, launched by a group promoting smaller government, looms as a big wild card in the Florida governor's race, potentially changing voting patterns and giving Republican Rick Scott a tougher path to re-election.

Equal Marriage Florida recently began work on gathering the more than 680,000 petition signatures needed for a proposed constitutional amendment erasing the gay marriage ban approved by voters only five years ago.

The effort was launched just days before U.S. Supreme Court rulings that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and effectively made California the 13th state in the nation where same-sex couples can legally marry.

The Florida campaign is aligned with the Organize America Initiative led by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who ran for president last fall on the Libertarian Party ticket. But it's Florida Democrats who could prove among the biggest beneficiaries, analysts said.

"The problem Democrats have in a non-presidential election year in Florida is that they don't go to the polls," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a Florida State University political scientist. "This would certainly change that."

Still, the same-sex marriage campaign faces enormous odds of making it to next year's ballot.

But more than other proposals also looking to share space with the governor's contest, amendments aimed at legalizing medical marijuana and dedicating state dollars to environmental programs, the same-sex initiative looms as a political game-changer, some say.

"Even though Barack Obama has carried Florida the last two presidential elections, and presidential contests are almost always close here, Democrats never do well in off-year races," said deHaven-Smith, who has studied Florida voting patterns for decades.

"You can never overcome turnout," he added. "But a same-sex marriage amendment would bring out urban Democrats unlike anything else. Rural, Republican-leaning voters would come out opposed. But there are not enough of them to offset what would be a big increase in Democratic voters."

Ballot measures have proved a pivotal factor before in governor's races in Florida.

In 1994, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, defeated Republican Jeb Bush by 63,940 votes out of more than 4 million cast -- at the time, the closest governor's contest in Florida history.

Chiles won largely on the strength of a Democratic-voting surge in Broward County. Driving the Broward turnout was a proposed constitutional amendment that would have legalized casino gambling.

The measure failed statewide, with 62 percent of voters opposing it. But Broward, a Democratic hotbed, was the only one of Florida's 67 counties where a majority of voters supported it.

DeHaven-Smith said these voters backed Chiles, too. "It gave him the votes he needed."

Chiles that year became the last Democrat elected governor in Florida.

Even before last week's court rulings, many in the gay rights community cautioned against moving too quickly with a ballot initiative -- warning that falling short next year of the 60 percent threshold needed to pass could seriously damage the movement.

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a gay rights advocacy group, said a courtroom challenge to the state's same-sex marriage prohibition is still a possibility.

Also, the 2016 presidential contest could prove a better time to ask voters to rule on same-sex unions, in part because these elections usually draw younger voters, along with more minorities and independents, analysts said.

But for Democrats, a same-sex marriage measure next year would almost certainly increase turnout above the 49 percent level of the 2010 governor's race, when Scott narrowly defeated Democrat Alex Sink.

Four years earlier, then-Republican Charlie Crist was elected governor over Democrat Jim Davis when 47 percent of Florida voters went to the polls.

In last year's presidential contest, 72 percent of Floridians voted, compared with 75 percent in 2008.

Online retail giant Overstock.com is expected to announce soon it plans to offer some matching funds to the Florida same-sex marriage effort, as it has to other gay rights measures across the country.

But the cost and logistics of a Florida ballot initiative remain daunting.

The deadline for petition signatures is Feb. 1. Vanessa Brito, a Miami political consultant and co-chair of the Equal Marriage Florida campaign, said leaders hope to collect at least 10 percent of the total by Aug. 1, in less than a month.

Under state law, that would allow organizers to submit the proposal to Attorney General Pam Bondi for a non-binding legal opinion.

That begins the path toward getting the measure before the Florida Supreme Court, which must rule that the proposed ballot language meets constitutional standards.

Brito projected that the cost of the ballot campaign would hit $6 million.

"There has never been a more relevant issue than this right now," Brito said. "If we get on the ballot, I think we win. There is tremendous momentum behind marriage equality," she said.

Many leading Florida Democrats hailed the ruling, with state party chair Allison Tant saying "there is still a long road ahead" to achieve equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Floridians.

By contrast, Florida's Republican leaders have stayed quiet. Gov. Rick Scott said that the 2008 same-sex marriage ban approved by 62 percent of voters remains "the law of the land."

A survey by liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling in March found that 75 percent of Floridians support letting same-sex couples marry or have civil unions.

Only 23 percent of those surveyed in Florida opposed any legal recognition of a gay couple's relationship.

John Kennedy, writes for The Palm Beach Post.

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