Amendment on gay marriage divides young and old, rural and urban

Proposal divides young and old, urban and rural voters

lbonner@newsobserver.comMay 6, 2012 

  • Rural vote strong Early voter turnout was solid in rural counties, where support for the amendment is strong. A majority of those who voted early are 55 or older. Top 10 counties’ early vote turnout, by percentage by the close of voting Thursday, May 3: Alleghany 13.6% Transylvania 13.6% Mitchell13% Bladen 11.8% Alexander 11.5% Chatham 11.4% Orange 11.2% Watauga 10.8% Durham 10.5% Henderson 9.9% Others: Wake 4.3% Mecklenburg 3.1% Johnston 2.6% Age of early voters By percentage of votes cast Under 35 11.9% 35-54 23.4% 55 and older 64.7% Early vote total: 348,808, or 5.5 percent of registered voters News researcher David Raynor Source: State Board of Elections

Lawn signs urging passing drivers to vote for the constitutional amendment on marriage are small and confusing, Chatham County resident Nora Brooks says. So her husband and some friends painted 4-by-6-foot plywood billboards with an easily readable and unmistakable message: “1 man 1 woman.”

Clay Vickers knows that voters younger than 30 are least likely to go to the polls, so the 22-year-old got together with friends to host a “Grill the Amendment” cookout that drew about 50 friends and neighbors to his home near Duke University. About 30 from the party walked to the nearby Board of Elections office to vote.

The amendment banning civil unions and same-sex marriage has spurred grass-roots action throughout the state and has helped drive early voters to the polls in record numbers. It has also revealed generational and urban-rural divisions.

Turnout for early voting is high in places such as Mitchell and Alexander counties, which have large Republican majorities and where the amendment is expected to win easily, and in Durham and Orange counties, heavily Democratic counties with a high concentration of younger voters, where it is expected to lose.

The state has seen such divisions before in political contests, including the Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt races in the 1990s for U.S. Senate and the 2008 presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain.

“The urban-rural divide is going to be very apparent,” said Thomas Mills, a campaign consultant who is working with the opposition campaign. “You’re going to see this generational divide, too.”

He expects the amendment will lose in some of the counties Obama won, but not in northeastern counties with older African-American voters who will support the amendment.

Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis became a foil for opponents about a month ago when he called the amendment “a generational issue,” and told a group of N.C. State University it would be repealed in 20 years.

Support rises with age

No one knows what will happen in two decades, but state and national polls, and research on the “millennial generation” show people 30 and younger are more accepting of same-sex relationships than people 50 and older.

An Elon University poll of state residents showed opposition to any legal recognition for same-sex couples rises with age. The February poll found that 44.5 percent of people 18 to 34 years old supported full marriage rights for same-sex couples, while 23.7 percent of people 55 and older did.

“As young people age into the higher voting blocks, votes on these things may not be appearing on ballots any more,” said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist and assistant director of the Elon Poll.

University professors saw those younger opinions expressed in classrooms this year when discussions turned to the amendment, which would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions. Conservative and liberal students described the amendment as an equal rights issue, said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh.

“There’s a clear dividing line between the group under 30 and X-ers (Generation X) in terms of just acceptance,” he said.

Protect All NC Families, the campaign opposing the amendment, worked hard to get university students to vote early, focusing on schools such as Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill that had early voting sites on campus.

Stronger support in cities

The urban-rural difference also is evident, but not as stark. Amendment support is weaker in most urban areas, but polls show it winning in most, if not all, regions of the state. A survey last week by Public Policy Polling shows the amendment winning in all regions of the state except the Triangle. A WRAL poll showed the amendment winning in every region.

Increased voter registration in urban areas over the past 20 years is what is giving amendment opponents hope, said John Davis, a Raleigh political analyst. Two-thirds of people who moved to North Carolina were not from Southern states, with New York, California, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio feeding the growth. In the November 2010 election, about half the state’s voters were concentrated in 14 counties.

“What is very, very clear to see is that North Carolina is becoming a much more moderate state because of how many people have come here and where they have come from,” Davis said.

Mimi Schiffman, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill who grew up in Davis, Calif., is not part of the opposition campaign but is making short documentaries about the amendment for her graduate thesis. The videos are posted on the Huffington Post. Adult and child narrators talk about their worries about negative repercussions the amendment could have on their families.

“Hearing from kids in same-gender households and seeing well-spoken, thoughtful and clearly happy and well-adjusted children speaking their mind about this and having an opinion about this really resonates with people,” she said.

Acceptance for same-sex relationships “feels like a given” in northern California. She finds similar attitudes in the Triangle.

“I’ve found only a few people who want to talk it through and sort of challenge the perspective I’m presenting,” she said. “The younger generation is definitely ready to accept marriage equality.”

Working the streets

Although polls show the referendum will pass, grass-roots amendment advocates such as Christine Steele Gates aren’t taking any chances.

Gates spends “90 percent of my waking hours” campaigning – which included every day of early voting in the Board of Elections parking lot in Lenoir.

She and others staying out in the summer-like heat last week were on a mission: to win overwhelming support for the ballot measure among voters in Caldwell County, about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte.

Gates and other supporters say the amendment will ensure the preservation of traditional families.

“If we don’t win it, we’ll probably never get it in the constitution,” said Gates, 46, a married mom of a college-age daughter, as she and other supporters handed out “Vote For One Man + One Woman” palm cards to voters entering the building. “The gay activists will win, and then we’ll have Massachusetts, anything-goes here in the Bible Belt.”

It’s North Carolina’s rural and conservative regions like these – where homemade pro-amendment signs share roadside space with mass-produced ones – that are expected to carry the amendment to passage, according to recent polling data and organizers of the “vote for” movement. North Carolina is the only Southern state without a marriage amendment.

The campaign supporting the amendment, Vote for Marriage, has its foundation of support in churches throughout the state.

That’s how Nora Brooks became involved. She heard the campaign was looking for a Chatham County coordinator; the pastor of her church suggested she take it on.

Her efforts for the amendment take up hours each day. She has helped organize a meeting at her church where Vote For Marriage chairwoman Tami Fitzgerald was the featured speaker, posted messages to a Facebook page and hosted a phone bank in her home.

“It’s something I feel strongly about,” said Brooks, 38. “I am a Christian, and I believe most of what I try to do is stand on biblical truths as I live my life. Children deserve to be raised in a family of a man and a woman, because both bring something different to a child’s upbringing.”

It was that same zeal in opposition that had Clay Vickers knocking on doors to invite neighbors to his cookout and to call strangers about the amendment as he worked a phone bank at a friend’s house last week.

For him, the work grew from like-minded people getting together to persuade their networks of under-35 Facebook friends to vote.

“We know that’s a demographic that does not vote in high numbers,” he said. “And it’s a demographic that’s strongly against the amendment.”

So far, the demographics are tipped in favor of the amendment. At the end of voting Thursday, the average age of early voters statewide was 59. Voters in counties at least 75 percent rural had a slight turnout edge, with 5.9 percent voting early versus 5.7 percent in urban counties.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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