A strong stream of people at the polls through midday Tuesday, combined with record early voting numbers, is raising voter turnout expectations as North Carolina decides whether to enshrine a ban on gay marriage and civil unions into the constitution.
The extra attention is coming with a few voting problems. At least three people in Chatham County received ballots this morning without the amendment question and similar problems were reported elsewhere in the state. And two voters in Apex were arrested after an altercation with a third voter and a poll worker.
State election officials called the irregularities isolated. Authorities also investigated two complaints about churches that served as voting stations advocating for the amendment.
The referendum – which polls show is expected to pass easily – helped boost a low-profile primary election with more than 500,000 votes cast before polls opened at 6:30 a.m.
The vote is being watched across the country as the latest front in the national debate on gay marriage, drawing the attention of President Barack Obama, who asked voters to reject the amendment, and Rev. Billy Graham, who pushed for its passage.
Rachel Seidman, a historian at UNC-Chapel Hill, said she didn’t know much about the candidates on the ballot, but she wanted to make a statement against the amendment. “I’m really disappointed and outraged that we even had to go to the polls to defeat this,” she said.
Seidman, 45, said she knows the polls show the amendment likely to win approval, but she wasn’t deterred. “You’ve got to make your voice heard,” she said.
But 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.”
Polls open until 7:30
The polls remain open until 7:30 p.m. Rain started in western portions of the state earlier in the day, with thunderstorms expected to extend eastward by afternoon and evening. Poll workers, voters and state officials are reporting strong and heavier-than-expected turnout.
The problems in Chatham County involved the ballots for voters under 17 who will turn 18 before the general election in November. They can vote but not on the marriage amendment. The amendment-free ballots were wrongly given to voters over age 18 soon after the polls opened at 6:30 a.m. at the Hickory Mountain precinct at Pleasantville United Methodist Church, said Dawn Stumpf, county director of elections.
One woman filed a formal complaint by e-mail with Chatham County’s Board of Elections. One woman who was given a wrong ballot realized it before she voted and asked for the right ballot. And two voters didn’t realize it until after they submitted their ballot, but did not want to file a complaint, Stumpf said.
Polling sites have scanners to help poll workers determine which ballot to give to voters, but Hickory Mountain’s scanner was down this morning, which made it confusing for volunteers, she said. “I guess there was a lot of confusion. There’s a lot of ballot styles ... it’s very confusing for poll workers to have so many ballot styles,” Stumpf said.
In Apex, police charged Colleen Mary Brock, 50, and her husband Troy Scott Hale, 51, with misdemeanor assault and creating a public disturbance.
Police say the couple were yelling at a poll worker at Lufkin Road Middle School when a third citzen, Melvin Martinez Jr. tried to intervene about 7 p.m. Hale attempted to hit Martinez with a polling sign while Brock shoved him, according to a news release.
The questions about churches as polling places occurred in Johnston and New Hanover counties. In Johnson, Watkins Chapel Baptist Church in Middlesex put “God says one man and one woman” on its marquee sign. It sits outside the 50-foot no-campaigning zone, so it is not violating state law, election officials said.
“The church sign reflects a theological message about the amendment ... and it appears within the First Amendment rights of churches to have political positions,” said Don Wright, an attorney at the N.C. State Board of Elections.
Churches play a role in vote
The referendum holds a 16-point advantage, with 55 percent in favor and 39 percent against, according to the latest Public Policy Polling survey, a left-leaning Raleigh-based firm. The numbers shifted little in the final week as big-names on both sides of the debate – including former President Bill Clinton – made final pleas to persuade voters.
The pro-amendment campaign made the faith community and black voters a focus of their efforts. The state’s Catholic Dioceses gave $100,000 to the leading group pushing the amendment.
A young couple who arrived shortly after 6:15 a.m. Tuesday to a polling place in Charlotte said their church played a role in their vote.
“We’re here for the marriage amendment,” said the man, declining to give his name. “We’re here to vote for it. Our church has taken a stand on this.”
Many voters still don’t understand what the amendment would accomplish, polls show. A majority of North Carolinians support some legal recognition for same-sex couples, but the amendment would also prohibit civil unions and domestic partnerships.
“I think it was written where it would deceive a lot of people,” said Martrina Marrow, a 73-year-old retired Carrboro resident, after she voted against. “We already have a law. I don’t see what this big stink is about.”
More on the ballot
The presidential primary races appear on the ballot even though the prolonged Republican battle faded in the weeks before the North Carolina primary and Mitt Romney holds a solid grasp on the nomination. However, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul still appear on the ballot and may draw a protest vote against the likely GOP nominee.
Other statewide races being contested include the Democratic nomination to replace Gov. Bev Perdue, who announced in January that she wouldn’t seek re-election amid slumping poll numbers and ongoing criminal cases against former campaign associates. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and former Congressman Bob Etheridge lead the race, which polls showed tightened in the final days.
Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory has a near-lock on his party’s nod for governor. He faces a handful of lesser-known challengers, none of whom mounted much of a campaign.
Voters will also select Republican nominees for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer, agriculture commissioner and insurance commissioner. Democratic voters also are picking nominees for lieutenant governor, agriculture commissioner, state treasurer and labor commissioner.
Strong opinions against amendment
But the fervent opinions on the marriage question overshadowed the candidates and the campaigns for and against spent more than $1 million on TV advertising.
The anti-amendment TV campaign focused on how the referendum could hurt the children of same sex couples – a point that resonated with Marrow, the Carrboro voter. “The child should not be penalized,” said Marrow, who wore a shirt that read “Need a new life? God accepts trade ins.”
“The Bible tells us if the father eats the sour grape, the child won’t taste it,” she continued. “That child isn’t responsible for what her parents did.”
Paul MacDougal, a computer scientist said his faith also influenced him to vote against. “I am a Southern Baptist and I believe in the separation of church and state,” he said after voting at Leesville Road Elementary School. “I’d rather the government stay out of our bedrooms, stay out of our houses and stay out of our business.”
At the Optimist Community Center in North Raleigh, about 334 people had voted, including Brandi Clark, 33, a Democrat who voted against the amendment. “I don’t believe in it, but I don’t believe I should impose my beliefs on others,” she said.
At Hilburn Drive Elementary School in northwest Raleigh, Justin Pierce, 19, said the amendment was the main reason he came to the polls. “I’m here for the marriage amendment – I’m voting for it. That and Romney.”
Staff writers Katelyn Ferral, Keung Hui, Rob Christensen, Craig Jarvis, John Murawski and Charlotte Observer staff writer Steve Lyttle contributed to this report.