Big Decision

N.C. Vote Hits Hard at Gays

The underlying question is whether issues of equality and civil rights should be put to a popular vote.

It was Billy Graham versus Bill Clinton in North Carolina’s gay marriage ban vote—and Billy Graham won this round.

Before Tuesday, North Carolina—a high stakes general election swing state, where the research triangle meets the Bible Belt—was the last state among the former Confederacy without a constitutional ban on gay marriage, even though same-sex unions were illegal via legislation. But when Republicans took control of the state legislature, a constitutional ban became a policy priority.

Significantly, the bill went even farther, banning civil unions and domestic partnerships—legally invalidating those that currently exist in the state.

After powerful surrogates like Clinton and Graham tried to convince voters, more than a half-million North Carolinians voted early in the state—a sign of the intense emotions the issue of marriage equality still raises. Significantly, advocates of the ban outspent opponents by nearly two-to-one. Both parties will try to use the vote as a way of activating the base as they head into the fall.

This is the highest profile gay marriage ban effort since a circuit court declared California’s Prop 8 unconstitutional, due to the arguments advanced by the bipartisan legal team of Ted Olson and David Boies. Its passage adds fuel to the fire in advance of a possible Supreme Court showdown.

To date, 28 states have enacted bans on gay marriage in their constitutions, while a half dozen have legalized same-sex unions, including New York last year. The New Hampshire state legislature voted down an effort to repeal freedom to marry there earlier this year, thanks to libertarian Republicans who take their state’s ‘Live Free or Die’ slogan seriously. But underlying the North Carolina vote is the question of whether issues of equality and civil rights should ever be put to a popular vote.

Somewhat surreally, the Romney camp weighed in on the same sex marriage debate yesterday through former New York Governor George Pataki, who chided President Obama for “looking to have both sides where he’s appealing to those who are supportive of gay marriage but is afraid to alienate those who don’t.”

Hitting the president for trying to have it both ways on an issue is a stretch for a campaign whose candidate went from promising to be better on gay rights than Ted Kennedy to supporting the Federal Marriage Amendment.

The steady string of defeats at the ballot box for marriage equality efforts show how the issue remains a potent mode of political polarization, even amidst striking signs of a national shift on the issue. In 1996, just 27% of Americans favored legalizing same-sex marriage. Now, a narrow majority of 53% of Americans support marriage equality, according to Gallup.

President Obama’s slowly “evolving” views on marriage may frustrate liberal activists, but national opinion is evolving as well—and quite rapidly considering the centuries’ old traditional definition. Persuasion requires persistence and the power of personal examples.

Arguments that the president should come out in favor of marriage before the general election may resonate with the activist class, but that move has considerable political risk. In swing states like North Carolina and Virginia, the issue would be used to alienate undecided voters with negative ads that all but write themselves: “President Obama wants to fundamentally redefine the American family. Do you?”

Looking at national trends, it is clear that marriage equality is gaining acceptance, especially among younger Americans. But ballot referendums on the issue still reflect the intensity of opposition, especially in the South. This debate is a long way from done, but the arc of history is bending toward both freedom and equality, buoyed by the civil rights movement of our time.