CULLOWHEE — The Republican presidential primary race could be "done and dusted." Mitt Romney won the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and faces a fractured conservative base in the contests ahead. An early Romney victory may have an impact on Proposition 1, the proposed North Carolina constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, prohibiting same-sex marriage.
Proposition 1 will be on the ballot in the May 8 primary elections. An uncontested presidential primary would give some reason for hope among opponents of the amendment.
The GOP-led legislature placed the marriage amendment on the primary ballot thinking that party activists would be drawn to the polls. With no opposition as yet to President Barack Obama and Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Democratic primary is likely to have low turnout, with the exception of some competitive local races. With a presidential primary contest on their ballot, GOP voters would be drawn to the polls to select their nominee. In a competitive national GOP primary, Proposition 1 would almost certainly pass.
Things have changed. A fast finish by Romney will leave GOP voters with little but local races and the marriage amendment to draw them to the polls. Fewer Republican voters in May could even the playing field.
Millions of dollars will be sent into the state by conservative interests to support the amendment. However, there have been a string of victories for same-sex marriage proponents. Same-sex marriage is now legal in New York, other states have recognized unions from other states, and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has ended. There are major shifts in attitudes of Americans toward acceptance of same sex-marriage, and there is majority support for "civil unions," which provide legal rights for same-sex couples.
An Elon University poll shows similar support among North Carolina residents. These changes have strengthened the national political movement working to secure rights for same-sex couples. Protect NC Families, the coalition opposing the amendment, may count on an emboldened national movement that will see North Carolina as an opportunity to stop the advance of constitutional language restricting the rights of same-sex couples.
The only time a state amendment defining marriage has been defeated was in Arizona, and it was in a non-presidential general election with lower voter turnout. This amendment also included additional language that threatened other benefits and rights granted to same-sex families. Two years later, a reworded and less extreme amendment passed in a higher turnout presidential election.
Voter turnout in our primary elections will likely be lower than the Arizona election where the first amendment was defeated. Similar to Arizona, legal experts have argued that the North Carolina marriage amendment is broad enough to prevent civil unions and other rights for same-sex families. All of these conditions seem favorable for opponents of Proposition 1.
Proposition 1 has other problems upon which opponents may be able to capitalize. Voters are loathe to change state constitutions for issues on which there is great division, and that can tie the hands of future generations. Same-sex marriage is currently illegal in North Carolina. Public opinion, however, is changing rapidly. There is majority support for similar legal rights under civil unions among North Carolinians. Proposing an amendment to the voters takes a supermajority of state legislators and then a majority of voters.
In short, an amendment is hard to do. It also is very hard to undo. While support for same-sex marriage may one day reach a majority, it would take only a minority of the state legislature to keep this amendment in place. With variations in the politics of legislative districts around the state, a conservative minority could easily block removal of the amendment for decades.
The chances of defeating Proposition 1 in North Carolina are still low. May 8 is largely a Republican primary that will still attract GOP voters. But when turnout is low, a lot can happen. The most motivated voters win the day.
Opponents of Proposition 1 can mobilize liberal voters who support the rights of same-sex couples and moderate voters who are unlikely to support sweeping changes to the constitution that intrude on liberties. With such a coalition, there is a chance that Proposition 1 may be defeated.
Roger Hartley is associate professor and director of the Master of Public Affairs program at Western Carolina University.