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Originally published April 25, 2012 at 7:57 PM | Page modified April 26, 2012 at 8:42 AM

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North Carolina to have say on same-sex unions

On May 8, citizens in North Carolina will vote on Amendment One, which seeks to alter the North Carolina constitution to legally recognize only one domestic union — between a man and a woman. With Washington state potentially facing a referendum on its new same-sex-marriage law, we delve here into the dynamics in North Carolina.

Special to The Seattle Times

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RALEIGH, N.C. — On May 8, North Carolina citizens will determine the fate of Amendment One, which would rewrite the state constitution so that only one kind of domestic union would be recognized: that between a man and a woman. The outcome is ripe in national significance.

Washington state has particularly good reason to pay attention.

Washington's same-sex-marriage law is scheduled to commence June 7, but opponents are collecting signatures in hopes of forcing a statewide voter referendum. If 150,000 verified signatures are collected, the law will be determined on Election Day.

What happens in North Carolina, which voted for Barack Obama by the narrowest of margins in 2008 — three-tenths of a percentage point, far less than his 17-point victory in Washington — has the potential to deflate or motivate voters in other states.

"All eyes are on North Carolina," said Jen Jones, director of communications for Equality North Carolina, one of the organizations that opposes the amendment. "Not just because of the Democratic National Convention," which will be held in Charlotte in early September. "Not just because we're a swing state.

"But because of this amendment and what it means for the rest of the nation. Because the way North Carolina goes, the nation goes. The way Minnesota will go" in its similar ballot proposition this November, and "the way Washington will go. ... We always thought we were the bright shining star of the South. Now we have to prove it."

Race for governor

Notably, both the Tar Heel State and Evergreen State face a gubernatorial election as well. Both have moderate Republican candidates who are polling well — and staying as far as they can from the issue of same-sex marriage.

The front-runner among North Carolina Republicans is Pat McCrory, who has said quietly that he will vote for Amendment One. On the trail, however, he's quick to steer the conversation to issues such as jobs and education.

In Washington, GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna opposes the state's same-sex-marriage law, and he has expressed confidence that his position will not hurt his chances in November. His Democratic rival, former Rep. Jay Inslee, supports the law. Furthermore, McKenna maintains his view is the same as that held by President Obama.

Statement on initiative

But there are indications that the Obama administration is testing the waters when it comes to marriage politics, beginning with North Carolina. The administration issued an official statement to the Raleigh News & Observer in March against Amendment One, calling it "divisive and discriminatory." The same position subsequently was taken on the similar Minnesota initiative.

Race and politics is an important subplot to all this.

A common narrative in past defeats of same-sex-marriage laws is that African Americans were influential in the outcomes, such as with Proposition 8 in California, where almost 60 percent of African Americans voted against same-sex marriage. In North Carolina, African-American voters were critical in delivering the state to Obama, where a record 74 percent of registered blacks cast a ballot. So taking a position in opposition to Amendment One and in support of same-sex couples appears to be somewhat of a risk to Obama.

But, there are signs that change may be under way in North Carolina.

Most notably, the NAACP is heavily involved in the anti-Amendment One effort.

In addition, African-American religious leaders are taking a stand against Amendment One.

Early voting began April 19 (and other ballot items, including the GOP presidential primary). Both sides are urging voters to the polls. Vote For Marriage North Carolina has organized a "Marriage Sunday" early voting drive Sunday. The Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families has been organizing similar early voting events.

Polls show that the amendment is favored by a majority of registered voters, although the extent of support varies according to question wording in the surveys.

The state already has a law, passed in 1996, that defines marriage as solely between a woman and man. North Carolina also has a law that does not recognize same-sex marriages performed in states.

Opponents of Amendment One are emphasizing what they call the amendment's "unintended consequences," claiming laws involving all domestic, nonmarital unions, not only same-sex ones, will be legally cut adrift if Amendment One passes.

"People don't get on board with marriage equality in the numbers that will help us defeat this," Jones said. "But where they do get on board with us is best interest of a child, a child losing health care, women losing domestic-violence protections, and how this impacts all unmarried couples in the state of North Carolina, not just same-sex couples. Based on the 2010 Census, for every one gay and lesbian couple impacted by this amendment, there are 10 straight couples."

Equality North Carolina is targeting college campuses where opposition to Amendment One is strong, as well as female voters.

Take Anna Quackenbush, a 50-something conservative Lutheran from Charlotte. "What have we become as a country? I look at my son's generation — it's so different," she said. "If this thing becomes constitutional, it will be a foolish task."

Seattle resident Will Eisley often travels to North Carolina with his partner, and he is paying attention to what happens.

"The bill affects me as I have family who live in North Carolina that I visit frequently," said Eisley, who works in the technology sector. "[Amendment One] does not recognize any kind of civil-union or domestic partnership regardless of same sex or opposite sex. You can imagine a medical scenario that might arise and require my partner or me to make choices for one another or be able to see one another in a hospital."

North Carolina votes, and others watch.

A.V. Crofts is associate director of academic affairs at the University of Washington's Master of Communication Digital Media program. She has been writing about politics at the UW Election Eye 2012 blog.

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