- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Same-sex-marriage advocates are unlikely to challenge a petition forcing the issue to referendum and are gearing up for a campaign battle stretching to Election Day.

Advocates who led the fight to legalize gay marriage in the state say they are largely content to see a public vote on the law now that the state has received and verified about twice the number of voter signatures needed to place it on the ballot.

The group that lobbied most visibly for the law said that while successful petitions often face lawsuits over their organizers’ signature-collecting methods, it is digging in for what it expects to be a multimillion-dollar campaign aimed at making Maryland the first state to approve gay marriage in a public vote.

“We’re keeping all options on the table, but our focus is definitely on the referendum in November,” said Kevin Nix, spokesman for Marylanders for Marriage Equality. “We’re planning on running a full-court press here.”

Gay marriage is expected to be one of several ballot initiatives along with the Dream Act, which would allow in-state tuition for some college-aged illegal immigrants.

While election officials last year certified a Dream Act referendum for this fall, the issue was not finally resolved until last week, when the Court of Appeals upheld a ruling against immigrant advocates who had argued the law wasn’t subject to referendum.

Last year, plaintiffs dropped a portion of the same lawsuit alleging that a petitioner violated state law by hosting a website that automatically filled in some personal information for signers.

The same online technology was an integral part of this year’s gay-marriage petition drive, which netted more than 109,000 voter signatures as of May 31.

People on both sides of the issue have acknowledged that the signatures are almost sure to hold up in court, leading to a high-stakes battle for votes that is expected to draw national attention.

“It’s going to take a lot of grass-roots effort to make sure the voter population is well educated on this issue,” said Derek McCoy, executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which is leading the campaign against gay marriage. “We understand as well that these ballot initiatives are expensive.”

Mr. McCoy said his group expects to have spent about $200,000 on the petition drive by the time it submits its final batch of signatures at the end of the month.

He said costs for the political campaign stretching to Election Day will be far greater, with costs for advertising, staffing and public events expected to go well into seven figures.

Much of that money is expected to come from public donations and support from groups such as the National Organization for Marriage.

Marylanders for Marriage Equality is also expected to spend millions. The group recently opened two campaign offices in the state and hired 12 staffers with the expectation of expanding its staff in coming months.

“I think we’ve got a pretty strong coalition in place, but we’ll take support,” Mr. Nix said. “Our effort is really in the state to really get folks from the state even more engaged.”

The coalition also has received heavy out-of-state financial support. Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has hosted fundraisers throughout the country for the group, which also has received backing from the Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation’s leading gay rights organizations.

Mr. McCoy said MMA is waiting for the state to officially approve its petition before adding staff and finalizing its campaign plans, and he suggested that gay-marriage supporters have gotten a head start while opponents wrap up their petition drive.

“We will be enlisting help from all over the country,” he said. “They’re going to continue their efforts, but we’re going to be very aggressive as well.”