PORTLAND, Maine — The hopes of same-sex marriage supporters were buoyed early Wednesday morning as the Question 1 referendum maintained a slim lead.

At 12:05 a.m., with 299 — or 52 percent— of 578 precincts reporting, there were 171,980 votes, or 51 percent, in favor of Question 1 and 165,070 votes, or 48.9 percent, opposed.

Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Mainers United for Marriage, which supports Question, declared victory, as did Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine and a member of the campaign’s executive committee.

“Maine voters chose freedom over fear,” Bellows said in a statement.

Carroll Conley, co-chairman of Protect Marriage Maine, the campaign that opposed Question 1, said at midnight that his side was not ready to concede. He said they were waiting for results from Aroostook and Franklin counties before calling representatives of Mainers United for Marriage.

Conley said earlier in the evening that the campaign was “concerned.”

“The last totals I saw with 25 percent of the vote in showed us down by six percent,” he said at just before 11 p.m. in a telephone interview. “We lost Biddeford and Lewiston, two towns we won in 2009. We have to see larger margins out of the 2nd Congressional District if we are going to prevail.”

As of 11:30 p.m., the vote in Biddeford was 4,770 in favor of Question 1 and 3,671 against. Despite Conley’s statement, the vote in Lewiston was 5,938 against the referendum and 5,498 in favor with seven of eight precincts reporting.

The entire country is watching and waiting to see what will happen in Maine, Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, based in Washington, D.C., said Tuesday night.

“This is a historic choice,” she said. “States that are watching Maine are those states that have constitutional amendments [banning same-sex marriage] that would be able to get something on the ballot to repeal it.”

She said that 29 states have constitutional amendments that define marriage as between a man and a woman.

“People are sitting in those states knowing the trajectory of the country is moving in our direction and that many people around the country are with us,” Carey said.

Re-elected 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree left her own victory party to greet Question 1 supporters. Pingree said that one of her proudest moments as representative from Maine was when she voted to repeal “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” That policy prevented members of the U.S. Armed Forces from being discharged for being openly gay or lesbian.

Former Gov. John Baldacci stopped in at supporters’ election night party in Portland. In 2009 Baldacci signed into law a bill passed by the Legislature to allow same-sex marriage in Maine. It was repealed that same year in a people’s veto referendum by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent.

Outside the crowded ballroom, Baldacci said if the referendum passed, it would not be his legacy but part of the state’s legacy.

“I want to say how proud I am of the people of Maine for being open to listening to the conversation over the past year,” he said. “There is something in the air and the water of the state of Maine that makes people fight for what’s right.”

Supporters and opponents of Question 1 both said earlier Tuesday night that they were optimistic that their side would win.

Early returns from small towns in rural parts of the state showed Question 1 behind.

Columbia Falls in Washington County was the first to report its vote totals. Just 20 of its 415 registered voters cast ballots. Five voted for Question 1 and 15 voted against it.

Spokesmen for Mainers United for Marriage, which supports Question 1, and Protect Marriage Maine, which opposes the referendum, said they expected the final tally to be close.

“There’s been a strong turnout and we believe that is good for us,” David Farmer, spokesman for Mainers United for Marriage, said as supporters arrived at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland for the election night party. “We have gotten reports of long lines in cities, college towns and coastal areas.”

Farmer said he expected more than 1,000 people, including campaign staff, volunteers and coalition partners, to attend the event.

Protect Marriage Maine was expecting a much smaller gathering at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston, Conley said Tuesday night in a telephone interview. He said the campaign had planned for about 60 people to attend.

“The most recent polls have shown this is very close,” he said. “We believe we’ve conducted this campaign in an honorable way, in a respectful way. Now we just have to wait.”

The Rev. Marvin Ellison, a professor at Bangor Theological Seminary and a member of the board of directors of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, disagreed.

“That may have been the intention, but I don’t think that was the actual result,” Ellison said. “I think the campaign stirred up people’s fears unnecessarily and that somehow religious freedom would be jeopardized if same-sex couples could marry. I think there are real differences among people of faith [on this issue], but I also know people of faith [who] support the freedom to allow same-sex couples to marry do that in good faith.”

The early returns Tuesday night looked similar to those from 2009.

Conley said the margin of victory in Cumberland County for the Yes on Question 1 campaign would be a big clue as to how close the vote would be. Same-sex marriage supporters won 60 percent of the vote there three years ago, he said.

In 2009, the campaign that wanted the law to remain in place spent about $4 million compared to the $2.5 million spent by those who wanted to repeal it. Earlier this year, supporters of same-sex marriage predicted they would spend between $4 million and $5 million on the campaign. Opponents said they would raise less than half of that.

The total amount of money raised and spent by the Question 1 campaigns this year won’t be known until Dec. 18, when the final financial reports are due to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices in Augusta.

During the most recent reporting period, Oct. 1-23, Mainers United for Marriage raised about $964,000. As of Oct. 23, supporters of gay marriage had raised a total of $4.3 million. The largest contributor for the period was the Human Rights Campaign Fund, based in Washington, D.C., which gave the campaign more than $300,000.

Protect Marriage Maine raised nearly $950,000 during the same period, bringing its total to $1.4 million. It received $800,000 in first three weeks of October from the National Organization for Marriage, based in Washington, D.C., and another $100,000 from the Knights of Columbus.

Polls typically have shown support for allowing same-sex couples to marry prior to elections, according to a previously published report. The results of a Pan American SMS Group Omnibus Poll of 400 likely Maine voters released Oct. 10 showed 55.3 percent of respondents said they would vote yes when asked, “Do you want to allow the state of Maine to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?” Another 1.3 percent of respondents said they leaned toward a yes vote.

That compares to 38.5 percent who answered no to legalizing same-sex marriage, with another 0.5 percent indicating that they leaned toward a no vote, said the story, published on Oct. 10.

However, responses to a preliminary question that asked those polled to describe their personal position on same-sex marriage raised doubts and spurred pollster Patrick Murphy to include an analysis that stated, “The percentage of those who say they plan to vote for same-sex marriage may well be inflated and in all likelihood is not at the level recorded in the straight-up polling question.”

When asked in the Pan American SMS survey to describe their position on same-sex marriage, 47.3 percent of respondents said they support both same-sex marriage and civil unions; 24.3 percent said they oppose same-sex marriage but support civil unions; 16.5 percent registered opposition to both same-sex marriage and civil unions; and 7 percent answered that they “oppose same-sex marriage for my church but not for others.” Five percent of those polled said they were undecided or declined to answer.

The analysis noted that 4 percent of the polling sample said they opposed same-sex marriage, then replied yes to the question about whether the state should be allowed to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. An additional 4.25 percent of the polling sample indicated that they would vote yes to the referendum question after saying that they “oppose same-sex marriage for their church but not for others.”

After the 2009 repeal, proponents of gay marriage began planning for a statewide vote in 2012. They began gathering signatures to put the referendum on the ballot in August 2011. They were required to gather at least 57,277 valid signatures, or 10 percent of the total number of people who cast ballots for governor in the last gubernatorial election.

Advocates turned in petitions from 453 towns and cities on Jan. 26, 2012. Of the 96,137 signatures submitted, 10,921 were determined to be invalid, the Secretary of State’s Office said in February when it announced the issue would be on the Nov.6 ballot.

Opponents of gay marriage, who often say they support traditional marriage, claim that in the 32 states where voters have weighed in on the same-sex marriage issue, it has been rejected.

In New England, same-sex marriage is allowed in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont, and civil unions for same-sex couples are allowed in Rhode Island. Other states that permit same-sex marriage are New York, Washington and Iowa, along with Washington, D.C.

In the states where same-sex marriage is allowed, the laws all came through either court orders or legislative votes, not through a statewide popular vote.

The Maryland and Washington state legislatures voted earlier this year to allow same-sex marriage.

In February, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill to allow same-sex marriage in that state. A constitutional ban on gay marriage passed in North Carolina on May 8.

Voters in Minnesota are considering Tuesday a constitutional ban in that state. In Maryland and Washington state, voters are deciding whether to repeal same-sex marriage laws passed earlier this year.

BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report. David Farmer is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News.

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