By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Nathan Meyer calls voters who are undecided about same-sex marriage, he talks about his parents' marriage and how he sees it as a model for what he hopes to have -- before he mentions that he and his boyfriend plan to one day wed.
Meyer, 30, a high school English teacher from the St. Paul suburb of Roseville, is part of a team of volunteers who aim to reach 1 million Minnesota voters before the state votes on November 6 on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
"All people get married for the same reasons. And my parents and their marriage, that's common ground for people," Meyer said.
He said he's been surprised at how many people are willing to have such a personal conversation with a stranger on the telephone. While some people hang up on him, most calls last 10 minutes, some have stretched to 20 minutes or longer.
Ballot initiatives banning the legal recognition of same-sex marriage have succeeded in 31 states, and no state has ever approved same-sex marriage by popular vote. In this year's November 6 election, advocates of same-sex marriage hope to change that.
Maine - which rejected gay marriage in a referendum in 2009 by 53 to 47 percent - could become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage solely by popular vote. In Washington and Maryland, where the state legislatures passed laws expanding marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples earlier this year, citizens will vote on whether to let the laws stand.
Meanwhile, defenders of traditional marriage hope Minnesota will become the latest state to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman - effectively banning same-sex marriages.
Six states, as well as the District of Columbia, have expanded marriage rights to include same-sex couples. In Massachusetts, Iowa and Connecticut, the laws followed court rulings that found same-sex couples could not be denied the right to marry. Legislatures brought on the change in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire. (For a graphic on marriage laws, see: http://link.reuters.com/wyv23t)
"Winning a ballot measure is really the last barrier that we have to overcome," said Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a national marriage equality campaign.
Bolstered by public opinion polls showing growing acceptance of same-sex unions, particularly among young people, advocates this year are hoping to win over skeptics with personalized appeals for allowing same-sex couples to wed. For example, voters reached by pro-gay marriage volunteers are asked if they know anyone who is gay, and the volunteers often bring up gay family members or friends.
"IT'S A FREE COUNTRY"
When Maine last took up a gay-marriage referendum, Lynn Sailor, 37, a divorced mother of three, opposed anything beyond civil unions for same-sex couples. A visit from an activist last summer changed her mind and this year she plans to vote in favor of the referendum.
"My question is, why not allow gay people to get married if that's what they want to do? It's a free country and it doesn't hurt me any," she said.
Advocates for same-sex marriage in Maine say they have had 200,000 one-on-one conversations with voters. They are now reaching out to those voters a second time for follow-up conversations.
"In Maine, what we're doing is we're going on the offense for a change," said Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Mainers United for Marriage, and a veteran of successful marriage fights in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. "We decided we were going to use the ballot option as a tool, whereas it's been used by our opponents as a weapon."
But Matt Hutson, campaign director for Protect Marriage Maine, which opposes the referendum, said the group's internal polling showed a dead heat on the issue.
"I don't believe there are a whole lot of undecideds on this issue. People know where they stand, just as they did three years ago," said Hutson. "Quite honestly, we're seeing a groundswell of people saying, we don't agree with this and we don't like that they keep bringing this up again, even though we already voted against it."
A poll by the non-partisan Maine People's Resource Center found registered voters think the state should issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples 53 to 43 percent.
In Maryland, an OpinionWorks survey conducted for the Baltimore Sun found voters favoring same-sex marriage 49 to 39 percent. And in Washington, a SurveyUSA poll found voters back the referendum 50 to 43 percent.
In Minnesota, a survey by Public Policy Polling found voters split almost down the middle, with 48 percent of voters supporting the ban and 47 percent opposing it.
Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, rejects the idea that public opinion is turning in favor of expanding marriage rights to same-sex couples.
The wording in many surveys on the topic is biased, and many respondents who oppose same-sex marriage might claim to be undecided simply to avoid discussing it, he said.
"This isn't a chess game. We're telling the truth and time and time again voters are rejecting efforts to redefine marriage," he said in an interview.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)