Early voting leading up to the May 8 primary election has surged across North Carolina, driven by intense interest in the so-called marriage amendment.
Turnout is on a pace to exceed that of any primary election since the state implemented one-stop voting in 2000.
The first week of one-stop voting has even surpassed the first week in the presidential primary election of 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, which drew 102,815 votes. As of noon Friday, 114,243 one-stop votes had been cast. Including mail-in ballots, 121,545 people have voted since the 17-day one-stop period began April 19.
With the Republican presidential nominee no longer an issue, the driving force behind the turnout is the proposed amendment to the state constitution banning legal recognition of same-sex marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships.
“I would say the amendment is probably the single ballot issue across North Carolina that is generating participation,” state elections director Gary Bartlett said Friday. “It’s a little surprising. I thought there would be a good primary turnout, but that was when we had the potential for a Republican presidential primary race.”
Durham County has produced far more early voters than any other county in the state – about 9,000 – trailed by Buncombe County with about 6,600 and Orange County with about 4,400. Wake County ranks sixth, with close to 3,000 votes, according to state Board of Elections data.
While Durham is a Democratic stronghold, and in some neighborhoods anti-amendment yard signs are as thick as wildflowers, driving much of Durham’s enthusiasm is Duke University.
Organizing at Duke
At Duke, a well-organized opposition has spent months laying the groundwork to defeat the amendment. More than 2,000 votes have been cast in Duke’s Old Trinity Room. Two precincts in the neighborhoods surrounding and including the university are the top two most active precincts in the state.
An analysis of voter turnout data shows huge spikes in college-age voters in both Durham and Orange counties. But early support from students doesn’t translate into a trend that the amendment is headed to a defeat.
The turnout, although big, so far only represents about 2 percent of the registered voters, so it’s not a predictor of the outcome on May 8. Also, based on past elections, there will be a flood of early voting leading up to the final day, May 5. In 2008, 70 percent of the early votes were cast in the final six days.
On the Duke campus, student gay-rights advocates and Democrats joined forces soon after the General Assembly’s decision in September to put the matter before voters.
“Our wheels were definitely turning,” Jacob Tobia, a rising junior from Raleigh, said. “My thought was, there goes my next semester.”
Tobia and others formed Duke Together Against Constitutional Discrimination, which ramped up its efforts in January. At the same time, Elena Botella, a rising senior from Charlotte who is active in Duke Democrats and is the incoming president of the Young Democrats of North Carolina, also joined the fray.
Botella said volunteers made about 600 phone calls to first-year students, which determined that 85 percent of them said they would vote against the amendment or possibly would vote against it. She said volunteers also went door to door on campus, and each dorm had someone assigned to it; progress was kept on a spreadsheet.
Botella also wrote a column for the Duke Chronicle calling out campus Republicans to join the cause.
“She backed them into a corner,” said Michael Pruitt, a rising senior and member of Duke College Republicans who is also active in gay-rights issues.
Earlier this month, both Republican and Democratic clubs on campus issued a joint statement opposing the amendment. The student government also passed a resolution in opposition. President Richard Brodhead, deans, faculty and students also made a video expressing support for equality.
“I stand with an unusually conservative crowd,” Pruitt said. “I have not met anyone who says they are voting for it, including people who are incredibly conservative. It’s an issue of the role of government.”
The big first-week turnout has not surprised organizers. “I’m more surprised in the turnout around the state,” Botella said.
Statewide organizers on both sides claim they are encouraged by the early voting numbers. Rachel Lee, spokeswoman of the pro-amendment group Vote for Marriage N.C., said the surge in Duke voting isn’t necessarily a problem.
“There are different seasons throughout the voting process,” she said. “We’re going to see excitement generated in different areas for different reasons. Long term, I think we’ll see a lot of energy in pockets of North Carolina from rural to more metropolitan areas.”
Lee said a large turnout will eventually help pass the amendment.
“Namely, because our polling shows the amendment enjoys a great margin of support, despite party differences, gender differences, racial differences. The more excitement and enthusiasm that we see in early voting is only going to help our cause.”
Duke is just a micro example of groundwork that amendment opponents laid out across the state. Jeremy Kennedy of Protect All N.C. Families, says the anti-amendment campaign put its effort into a handful of college campuses with one-stop voting and volunteer campaign directors.
They are counting on nearly all college students voting as a block to defeat the proposal. But they also knew that May was a bad time to count on students to vote, since it is between semesters.
“We saw election day as starting on April 19 when early voting started,” Kennedy said. “… That’s our only shot with students.”
Kennedy is also encouraged by a spike in the number of unaffiliated voters casting early ballots. He said unaffiliated voters tend to skew younger, which is their most favorable demographic. But polling has also shown the pro-amendment side gaining unaffiliated voters.