When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed the marriage equality bill passed by the legislature earlier this year, he said the issue should be put to voters in a referendum.
"The fact of the matter is, I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South," he said at the time.
Lawmakers and advocates expressed offense at the idea of putting civil rights to a popular vote, and the recent success of marriage equality referendums in Maine, Maryland and Washington has not changed their minds.
"I still don’t believe we should put civil rights onto a referendum," Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a sponsor of the marriage equality legislation, told the Star-Ledger.
While some observers say New Jersey voters would pass such a referendum, Democratic legislative leaders and advocates prefer the potential routes of a veto override or a case pending in state Supreme Court. The legislature has until January 2014 to find the two-thirds majority needed to override Christie’s veto, a move that would require more support from Republican lawmakers.
In contrast to other states that have a voter-initiated referendum process, any referendum in New Jersey would first need to be passed by the legislature before it goes to voters. That prospect appears unlikely, given the opposition from the Democrats who control the legislature.
“First, talk about a referendum is nonsensical in our state,” said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, the statewide LGBT lobbying group, in a statement. “Unlike other states that have seen referenda on marriage equality over the years, New Jersey does not have an initiative-and-referendum mechanism. It’s like speculating on whether Bruce Springsteen would perform at a Republican convention in a duet with Clint Eastwood.”
A referendum campaign in the New Jersey media market would also be extraordinarly expensive, as Goldstein noted in his statement.
"A referendum is also a contest of which side can raise more millions. A referendum puts a community’s civil rights up for sale to the highest bidder," he said. "Would you want your civil rights to be at the mercy of the financial infestation of our political system? Aren’t we sick of the Super PAC lies that slice our society with hate? Can you imagine the exponential hate – and cost – that would infest a marriage equality referendum in hardball New Jersey?"
Goldstein suggested to the Star-Ledger that it might be possible to change Governor Christie’s mind, particularly as he considers a presidential run in 2016. National polling indicates that voters will continue to become more supportive of marriage equality, making the issue a political winner for a Republican, at least in a general election.
Senator Ray Lesniak, another Democratic sponsor of the marriage equality legislation, said a referendum could be a “last resort” if the override fails, the court case loses, and Christie remains in office with his present attitude.
"If we can’t defeat him maybe at that time we put it on the ballot. But I think with the override and the legal action, going on the ballot is a last resort," Lesniak told the Star-Ledger.