Last Friday’s decision to postpone a vote on marriage equality in the Illinois House came as a huge disappointment to supporters of LGBT equality. But Prairie State voters can take heart from legislative battles in other states where marriage equality was similarly delayed or defeated — but where the same chambers went on to pass bills soon after.
Like Illinois, legislative efforts to pass marriage equality stumbled in Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York — either failing to obtain a majority or by through postponed consideration. Future attempts to enact legislation later succeeded in three of those states, while the New Jersey legislature’s passage of a bill was met with a Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) veto. As Illinois supporters work to win passage of the bill later this year, ThinkProgress reached out to key players in each of those states and asked them about their experiences.
Three common themes emerged in their responses. Several said Illinois supporters need to make sure they have an accurate target list and focus on the lawmakers who need persuading. Constituents, they suggested, must respectfully tell their personal stories to their legislators and make their representatives understand why this issue matters to their families. Finally, the openly LGBT caucus within the legislature must appeal personally and emotionally to their colleagues, especially those who may not be as attuned to the topic.
Perhaps the most analogous case was Maryland’s unsuccessful 2011 attempt to pass a civil marriage bill through the state House of Delegates. Though advocates believed they had the needed votes to pass the bill, they were forced to postpone the vote after some pledged supporters wavered. Unlike Illinois, supporters went through with the debate — hoping their compelling personal stories might sway the handful of votes needed for a majority — before sending the bill back to committee after it became apparent the votes would not be there. Advocates, including Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), the state’s seven openly LGBT Delegates, and LGBT groups, organized a new campaign and successfully pushed the bill through less than a year later. When opponents forced the question onto the November ballot, a majority voted for marriage equality.
Openly lesbian Maryland Del. Heather Mizeur (D) noted that about 10 supporters were willing to be a part of a 71-vote majority but would have voted against the bill if it appeared likely to lose. “It would not have been okay to lose by 12 votes and try to come back the next year to win those back. We wanted to hold onto their willingness to be yes on a winning vote, instead of locking them into a no vote because they saw it was going down,” she recalled. To turn around the vote in Illinois, she suggested, “it could be helpful for them to try to wage an effort to get their supporters to sign some sort of pledge, start getting a vote count, and get a campaign around securing public commitments.” Maryland’s success came, she explained, from working with allies at national organizations, state groups, and really putting together a campaign. “Leave no stone unturned until we’re able to claim victory.”
Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, said that it made little sense to demand a vote in 2011 because there was not going to be an election before the next (2012) session. She noted that while grassroots activists were vital to the successful effort to win the second attempt, so was having a robust LGBT caucus inside the legislature who could remind colleagues, “you know my husband, you know my kids.” Issues like marriage equality, she observed, must be personal. “They’re so close — you really just have to build on that and get those last few votes.”