By EMERY P. DALESIO
RALEIGH, N.C. – Legislative Republicans are weighing whether to add a gay marriage ban to the state constitution, but it may not provide the election boost they’re hoping for.
A political science professor said he doesn’t expect an amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman to draw many voters who wouldn’t otherwise be motivated to head to the polls. Opinion polls from the past year are mixed on how much support there is for such an amendment.
Republicans in the state House on Wednesday proposed expanding their week-long redistricting session to consider constitutional amendments, but later discarded the idea. Lawmakers and interest groups had complained about the surprise move.
The issue has been postponed until a legislative session in September, but the ramifications will reach deep into a 2012 election season in which Republicans are hopeful of their chances against Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and President Barack Obama.
Obama narrowly won North Carolina’s electoral votes in 2008 and signaled he aims to contest the moderate Southern state again. Democrats decided to hold their convention in Charlotte.
It’s already illegal for same-sex couples to marry in North Carolina.
The proposal would let voters decide whether to amend the state constitution so that it states that marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic valid legal union recognized in the state. Three-fifths of all members of the House and Senate would have to approve putting the question before voters in November 2012.
Wake Forest University political science professor John Dinan said he thinks the marriage constitutional amendment will draw few North Carolinians to the polls who aren’t already likely to vote for president and governor.
“Both parties believe that these amendments can bring out voters who might not otherwise come out. The flip side of that is that it’s tough to think of a voter in 2012 who would not be motivated to vote in a presidential election contest, not be motivated by a gubernatorial re-election contest, but would be pulled out by a constitutional amendment,” said Dinan, who researches state constitutional amendments across the country.
Still, political strategists believe President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 benefited because the battleground state of Ohio was one of 11 states with same-sex marriage amendments on the November ballot, Dinan said.
An open microphone inside a closed-door meeting of House Republicans last month captured some of them discussing the likelihood that the amendment would mobilize conservative groups.
“One of the issues they have come to me about is the marriage amendment. It’s important to the conservative groups that we get this passed this year because they need that to be able to get their ground game working to get the maximum effect to get out the vote,” said Rep. Mark Hilton, R-Catawba.
North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes downplayed the importance of a same-sex marriage constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot for the GOP’s prospects.
“Voters will have an opportunity to voice their opinion on a wide range of constitutional amendments, but North Carolinians will ultimately turn out to vote in 2012 based on whether or not they are better off than they were four years ago,” he said Wednesday.
Democratic Party chairman David Parker said it was too soon to tell what role a marriage amendment would play in next year’s contests.
“The fact is we shouldn’t be using constitutional amendments to manipulate the public,” he said.
Polls from the last year have given different indications of how much support a marriage amendment would have.
An Elon University poll in February found that 37 percent of the state’s residents support or strongly support a marriage amendment, down from 43 percent in March 2009. A December poll of registered voters by the Civitas Institute, part of the same conservative network as the John Locke Foundation, found that two-thirds supported an amendment.
Thirty states already have constitutional language defining marriage. Minnesota lawmakers this year agreed to place an amendment defining marriage on the ballot for 2012.
At the same time, New York this month became the sixth state issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Five other states allow civil unions that provide state-level spousal rights to gay couples, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A North Carolina marriage amendment also would come as census data released last month showed same-sex unmarried couples are one of the state’s fastest-growing demographic groups. Between 2000 and 2010, same-sex domestic partners jumped 68 percent to 27,250. Households headed by married couples numbered 1.8 million, but that was no longer a majority of households at 48 percent.
Increasing acceptance of same-sex couples may mean that the time has passed for a marriage amendment, said Alex Miller, interim executive director of Equality North Carolina.
“On issues like this, once the trend lines cross they never uncross. We’ve reached the tipping point and gone over it,” he said. But if an amendment is approved by voters it would “enshrine in the constitution the idea that these North Carolinians are not deserving of equal rights and will never have equal rights.”
Bill Brooks of the North Carolina Family Policy Council sees the possibility of future lawmakers one day allowing same-sex marriage unless the constitution prevents it.
“It quite frankly is a movement of the people, to allow the people to decide what the definition of marriage is,” he said. “It takes it out of the hands of the courts and the General Assembly.”