North Carolina has become the 31st state to add an amendment on marriage to its constitution, with voters banning same-sex marriage and barring legal recognition of unmarried couples by state and local governments.
North Carolina is the last state in the South to add such an amendment, and supporters hoped for a resounding victory.
Incomplete returns show the amendment up 61.05 percent to 38.95 percent.
Primary turnout was heavy. Though there were many other races on the ballot, including primaries for statewide offices and congressional seats, the amendment appeared to drive much of the political discussion.
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Marriage rights for gay couples has been a topic of national debate this year, and North Carolina’s amendment and the campaigns for and against it drew international attention.
North Carolinians think of the state as progressive, but that’s within the context of the rest of the South, said Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at N.C. State University.
“This is a socially conservative state,” he said.
The state has a 16-year-old law banning same-sex marriage.
At least two other states will be voting on gay marriage rights in November. Minnesota has a constitutional amendment on its ballot. Maine has a referendum to allow same-sex marriage. Voters in Maryland and Washington state may be asked to affirm new state laws allowing same-sex marriage.
Money from national interest groups poured into North Carolina. The National Organization for Marriage contributed $425,000 to the Vote for Marriage campaign, according to the latest reports, and the Human Rights Campaign and its affiliates contributed nearly $500,000 to the opposition Coalition to Protect All N.C. Families.
Vote for Marriage raised more than $1 million, and the Coalition to Protect All N.C. Families raised more than $2 million.
The Rev. Billy Graham appeared in a full-page ad supporting the amendment, and others in his family recorded pro-amendment messages.
About 250 amendment supporters crowded a ballroom at the Hilton North Raleigh for the celebration that was part standard-issue campaign victory party and part wedding reception.
There was a cash bar, and music that included love songs. The centerpiece was a seven-tier white wedding cake, capped by a plastic heterosexual couple embracing.
After the Associated Press declared that the amendment would pass, Tami Fitzgerald, the Vote for Marriage chairwoman, took the stage to thank the churches, political groups and other volunteers who had helped deliver the win.
“Ladies and gentlemen, through God’s great mercy we have won an overwhelming victory tonight,” she said.
The voters, she said, sent a clear and unmistakable desire to “protect marriage in our state, in our country.
“As you all know, marriage was not invented by government. Our creator established it as the union of a man and a woman in an exclusive lifelong covenant and it has merely been recognized by government as the key to a strong and flourishing society.”
Amendment opponents had former President Bill Clinton and his former chief of staff Erskine Bowles record telephone messages to voters. President Barack Obama’s campaign put out a statement saying he opposed the amendment.
Opponents worked to raise doubts about the amendment’s consequences, including running television ads that focused on weakened domestic violence protections for unmarried couples, and loss of health insurance for children of same-sex couples.
The early returns projected at the front of the downtown Raleigh event hall were mostly ignored by the crowd of amendment opponents who joined the gathering.
Jen Jones, communications director for Protect All NC Families, said the campaign would have done nothing differently.
“We had an unprecedented coalition,” she said. “We were on TV as much as we wanted to be. We talked to everyone we could about unintended consequences.”
Incomplete returns show the amendment losing in only a handful of counties, including Wake, Durham, Orange, Chatham, Buncombe and Watauga. The amendment was losing in Mecklenburg County, but results there were incomplete.
Opponents anticipate a slew of lawsuits with the courts ultimately deciding how the amendment will effect employment-related benefits and legal arrangements between unmarried couples.
The Vote for Marriage campaign has its foundation in churches and ran television ads featuring the Bible. They fought back against what they characterized as opponents’ myths, saying that the amendment would have no impact on domestic violence protections.
“The involvement of the local churches across this state was absolutely the turning point,” said the Rev. Mark Harris, president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
The string of national amendment victories supports arguments for amending the U.S. Constitution to allow only heterosexual marriages, Harris said.
Before the campaigns ramped to full intensity, Harris called for a “civil conversation” on the issue.
Civility seemed to melt away by Tuesday.
A Cabarrus County man posted a YouTube video of himself firing a shotgun into a “vote against” sign. A Durham neighborhood listserv stopped taking comments on the amendment when the debate got too hot.
Campaigners for and against the amendment called a steady stream of complaints into the Wake County Board of Elections on Tuesday, each side complaining about the opponents’ illegal electioneering.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Gary D. Sims, Wake’s deputy elections director.
For some voters, the amendment was the main or only reason they came to the polls.
Cameron Hughes, 25, was in the process of moving to Charlotte for a new job in banking, but came all the way back to Chapel Hill Tuesday afternoon and drove straight to his polling place on Estes Drive.
Fueling his trip in equal measure were gasoline and cold anger that the amendment was even on the ballot.
“It’s an embarrassment and it’s pathetic, and I’m ashamed to have to come out here and vote on something like this, and, if the polls are right, I’m ashamed that apparently a large majority of the citizens of my state are pro-bigotry,” he said.
Hughes made the long trip to ink in just one oval on his ballot. He said that he had been so focused on finishing up work on a graduate degree in recent months that he hadn’t been able to properly study the candidates for various offices.
Lynne Greene, of Cary, voted for the amendment, at the Fellowship of Christ Presbyterian Church polling site. She said she could support civil unions but not gay marriage.
“I have an issue with the use of the word marriage,” said Greene, a Republican who is retired. “I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Polling by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling and the conservative Civitas Institute both showed the amendment winning by double digits, but the Public Policy Poll showed that a majority rejected the amendment after they learned it would also ban civil unions and domestic partnerships.
“People are conflicted,” said Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, a group advocating for full marriage rights for gay couples. “They hear one thing in their faith community, particularly that homosexuality is a sin. They have an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) family member or neighbor or co-worker. People are trying to reconcile those two experiences.”
Voters said they were confused about the amendment’s wording, and that confusion continued in some polling places where some voters received ballots without the constitutional question on it that were intended for 17-year-old voters
A Triangle voter advocacy group says it has received numerous complaints from people who were given the wrong ballot while trying to vote Tuesday.
The N.C. Election Protection hot line, part of a nationwide voter education coalition coordinated by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, fielded calls from voters all day who were given a ballot without the amendment, said Elizabeth Haddix, staff attorney with the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Civil Rights, which sponsored the hot line Tuesday.
“We’ve certainly gotten a heavy volume of calls, many more than we expected in a primary,” she said.
Katelyn Ferral of The News & Observer contributed.