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Four States, One Election, and a National Hope

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Four States. One Election. That is the powerful line employed by The Four, a campaign focused on marriage equality ballot questions in November 6th election.

32 times, voters from Alabama to Wisconsin have gone to the polls and enshrined in their state constitutions discrimination against gays and lesbians by banning the right to marry. The gay rights movement, historically playing defense, has measured success by its margin of loss. Gay leaders have sought to win battles on other fronts, winning the passage of Federal hate crimes legislation and the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell; and more recently, the movement has begun to claim victory on a state-by-state level, with the recent passage of marriage equality in legislatures in New York, Washington and Maryland.

But, gay rights advocates remain defeated at the ballot box. This year, perceived changes in Americans' feelings about gays and lesbians, and specifically marriage equality might mark an end to that trend, and accelerate momentum towards full equality. Four states have marriage ballot measures, and the polling for three of those questions looks promising -- and, miracle of miracles, one state, Maine, asks voters to support same-sex marriage equality in the affirmative for the first time. Not "should marriage be just for a man and a woman," but "Do you want to allow the State of Maine to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?" Today, The Four, a new gay-rights group founded by veteran activists, released a compelling video focused on Maine's Question 1.

Maine's LGBT community, and their allies, are off to a strong start: a new poll shows that Question 1 is up 57 to 36. But polling on issues of race and sexuality is notoriously hard: voters don't want to admit bigotry to pollsters. The numbers looked good for the gays leading up to Prop 8 in California, too. The experienced pols behind The Four don't want to take any chances, and their first release seeks to humanize the struggle for marriage equality in Maine through compelling profiles of two same-sex couples and a straight Yes-on-1 volunteer. That sounds like what you'd expect a gay-marriage ad to look like, but surprisingly, it's a rare tactic. Last week, the AP noted the omission of flesh-and-blood same-sex couples in ads being aired in the Minnesota campaign. The Four chose not just to appeal to broad principles of equality and nondiscrimination, but to point its lens right at real gays and lesbians facing the reality of discriminatory laws. Brain Ellner, a founder of TheFour, said: "We wanted to do something different, something that would help illuminate the hopes and dreams of real gay and lesbian families in these states who want equality."

The Four plans three more videos for the other state campaigns. In Maryland and Washington voters are being asked if they support their state legislature's passage of same-sex marriage; a "yes" vote on those questions will uphold same-sex marriage equality. Minnesota offers the more traditional ballot initiative, framed in the vein of, "Do you want to amend the constitution to recognize marriage as being between one man and one woman?"

The outcome of the ballot questions in these four states will have a tremendous impact on their gays and lesbian citizens, and has implications for the movement for equality nationally, too. Atop the pile of cases lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to review this year are several that directly address marriage equality. One asks the Court to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bans the government from granting any federal marriage rights to gay couples in states that allow marriage. In addition, California's Proposition 8 Case could be granted a hearing.

As the Atlantic showed in the spring in the context of The Affordable Care Act, popular sentiment does have an influence on outcomes at the Supreme Court. If gays and lesbians succeed in ballot initiatives in November, the Court might feel it has more cover for progressive rulings, and things could keep building from there. "Four States, One Election" is The Four's slogan. Plus one Supreme Court ruling on the horizon, equals a whole lot of hope.