Massachusetts residents were evenly divided over the Legislature's compromise proposal that bans gay marriage but also provides civil unions for same sex couples, according to a University of Massachusetts poll conducted over the past week.
In the first test of public opinion since the lawmakers' historic vote on March 29, the proposed amendment to the state constitution fell short of getting majority support in the poll, with 47 percent backing the measure and 47 opposing it.
The poll, which was taken March 30 through April 4, also found that given specific choices, 40 percent of those surveyed supported gay marriage while 28 percent supported a ban on gay marriage that would also provide for civil unions.
The people who strongly opposed both legalizing gay marriage and authorizing same-sex civil unions represented 17 percent of the poll sample. The sample was made up of 463 residents, 400 of whom are registered voters. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
The pollsters began surveying residents a day after the Legislature, meeting as a Constitutional Convention, ended its prolonged wrangling over proposals to ban gay marriages. The lawmakers voted 105-92 for a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage solely as between a man and a woman and also permit same-sex civil unions that offer gay couples the same state rights and benefits as marriage. The amendment needs another vote of approval in the next legislative session before it can be placed on the 2006 ballot.
Lou DiNatale, senior fellow at the McCormack School at UMass-Boston, said the poll results indicated how divided and confused the Massachusetts public is over gay marriage, which went to the top of the public agenda last fall with a Supreme Judicial Court ruling legalizing gay marriage. DiNatale said the findings suggest a tougher-than-expected battle to win passage of a constitutional ban.
"The legislative split we saw last week reflects the split we see in the general population," DiNatale said. "I would argue that these poll findings show that any amendment that gets to the ballot is going to have some difficulty getting a majority of voters behind it."
DiNatale said the poll also found that 11 percent of the sample said that the issue didn't matter to them, indicating that a small but significant bloc of voters could be the key for gay marriage supporters to defeat the proposed amendment at the ballot box.
"This seems to show some sentiment in the electorate that simply wants to get the issue off the public agenda," said DiNatale.
The poll also found that 52 percent of people surveyed supported Romney's efforts to ask the "Supreme Court" [sic] to stay its ruling legalizing gay marriage. Forty-two percent opposed the governor's plan. (The court is known formally as the Supreme Judicial Court.)
Because gay marriages will be legal May 17 under the SJC ruling, Romney and other opponents argue that there will be legal complications and confusion if the voters ban same-sex marriage in 2006. But Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly refused to seek the stay on Romney's behalf. Romney says he is weighing other legal options.
Romney's decision to take a high-profile role in the gay marriage debate appeared not to have damaged his standing. Of those surveyed, 62 percent gave him a favorable rating and 36 percent an unfavorable rating, indicating little change from UMass polls taken last summer and fall.
Romney's general job performance rating among voters did not seem to have suffered, either, with 58 percent rating his performance as excellent or good, and 40 percent not so good or poor. Those numbers were also consistent with UMass poll results over the last six months.
But Massachusetts lawmakers emerged from their often emotional and heated deliberations over gay marriage with poor marks. The poll found that only 35 percent rated the Legislature's job on the gay marriage issue as excellent or good and 59 saying it was not so good or poor.