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Voters face barrage of ads as they decide four major ballot questions

Maryland enters uncharted political territory this fall as voters for the first time in decades face four major ballot questions. An onslaught of costly advertising is likely as competing interests from all over the country try to sway the state's electorate.

Ballot questions aren't subject to fundraising limits, so the money spent on at least two of the campaigns — on laws legalizing same-sex marriage and expanding gambling in the state — will likely be in the millions.

Two other questions, on access to higher education for some illegal immigrants and the fairness of the new congressional map, ignite deep passions likely to inspire old fashioned face-to-face politicking.

"We haven't seen anything like it in modern history," said Donald F. Norris, who chairs the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It is going to be a political junkie's absolute dream."

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, quipped that Maryland "is going to be a little bit like California," where statewide referendums are commonplace.

"These ballot issues will make it a very important election year in the state," he said.

Heavily Democratic Maryland is expected to be a safe place for President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, so the top-of-the ticket races won't cause much suspense.

But after two decades without a law petitioned to the ballot, voters will decide whether to uphold three controversial ones. These were petitioned to referendum by conservative advocates who think they should be overturned.

The legislature deliberately added a fourth, asking voters to decide whether Maryland should allow more gambling.

Laws on the ballot are suspended until voters decide. They include:

•A law passed this year allowing same-sex couples to marry in Maryland.

•A law passed last year, called the Dream Act, that allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities as long as they've graduated from state high schools and their parents have filed state taxes.

•The redrawn map of the state's eight congressional districts, which among other changes adds many Democratic voters to the previously Republican Western Maryland district.

•The measure passed by the legislature last week that would allow a sixth casino in Maryland, to be located in Prince George's County, and table games at all six.

Already one group has formed that seeks to reject all four of the ballot measures — under the banner "Repeal O'Malley's Laws."

"You are talking about educating millions of voters on four issues," said Tony Campbell, a former Baltimore County Republican Party official who founded the group. "Each issue could get lost in the mix. It is a way of tying it all together."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who supports all four laws, plans to devote most of his energy to supporting same-sex marriage and the immigration measure, said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the governor.

The Maryland Democratic Party is taking the lead defending the congressional map. Local leaders and casino interests are expected to push the gambling expansion measure, an issue that O'Malley has said he is "sick" of dealing with.

The gambling expansion question could attract the most money, experts say, especially if some of the state's current casino owners decide they should fight it to protect their own markets. (Officials with Penn National Gaming and the Cordish Cos., who both have casinos in Maryland, declined to say whether they will actively work against the measure.)

In Ohio, $150 million was spent over the course of three elections with casino questions on the ballot, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which tracks funding on ballot initiatives.

These companies don't need to raise money from the public. They just dip into corporate profits.

Already in Maryland, gambling interests spent more than $1 million on advertising in the eight weeks leading up to last week's General Assembly session and are expected to continue to pour money into their campaign.

Next would be same-sex marriage, if patterns from other states hold. Advocates on both sides of the law have already attracted national money and attention.

In Maine, more than $10 million was spent for and against a 2009 ballot measure on same-sex marriage, according National Institute on Money in State Politics. Proposition 8, in California, drew $106 million.

In Maryland, both sides of the same-sex marriage debate have been sending out emails requesting money from potential supporters.

Sometimes the pitches have been tied to national events — when President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, a flurry of fundraising requests on both sides followed. Other times, they've been part of a campaign-driven event, like the release of a favorable poll or the rollout of a new high-profile supporter.

In one, Marylanders for Marriage Equality drew attention to a couple who dipped into their retirement savings account to support the cause.

Opponents have also held candlelight vigils and organizing events. They say they don't feel they have to raise as much money as same-sex marriage supporters.

"We do need money to get our message out, but we don't have to match the other side," said Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, which is working in all four states that have same-sex marriage questions on the ballot this year.

Political observers say it's unclear how voter turnout will be affected by the ballot questions.

Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida, a consulting group that works on ballot initiatives, said the questions tend to draw to the polls "cynical voters" who typically stay home.

These voters may not bother to cast a ballot for individual lawmakers because they don't think it matters — the system is broken, and all politicians are bad. But with a referendum question, "you are talking about direct democracy," Ferrulo said. "Their vote can help determine the outcome of a profound issue that will impact their lives, often in very direct ways."

"All models for voter turnout will be turned upside down," he predicted.

Campaigns for various issues will team up if they believe their universe of supporters overlaps. He predicted that same-sex marriage and immigration activists would be a natural fit; both are issues that progressives support.

To some extent they have. Casa de Maryland, the leading advocacy group in Maryland for illegal immigrants, formed an alliance in July with Equality Maryland, the state's top gay-rights group. Both are trying to recruit volunteers with stories that will move the other.

There are limits, however, to how closely two interests can work together. The Roman Catholic Church is a major funder for the immigration issue but is fighting to defeat same-sex marriage.

The dynamic has already produced some awkward moments: When gay-rights activists showed up to a Dream Act event, they ran into leaders of the Catholic Conference, who are crusading against same-sex marriage.

Some gay-rights activists also are concerned that the gambling question may stir up opponents — in particular, socially conservative African-Americans — who will also say "no" to same-sex marriage.

But Josh Levin, the campaign manager for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, says he's not worried. "Maryland's a high-turnout state to begin with," he said. "We don't think the ballot questions will change the overall shape of the electorate."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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Ballot questions

Maryland voters will decide in November whether to uphold four measures approved by the General Assembly. They are:

•A law allowing some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities

•A law legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland

•A map with redrawn boundaries for Maryland's eight congressional districts

•A measure allowing another casino in Maryland and table games at all casinos

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