When republicans trying to pass a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in North Carolina moved the referendum from the November 2012 election to May, five months earlier, they may have initially counted the shift as a win. But gay rights activists have since come to see the maneuver as a mistake, which they hope will ensure the proposal’s failure.
Equality North Carolina’s recent interim executive director, Alex Miller, concedes he had a sinking feeling when GOP lawmakers revised the proposed marriage equality ban so the vote would no longer coincide with a presidential election. Instead it will happen the same day as the Republican presidential primary — a surefire way to attract conservatives.
But not only has Miller memorized a list of local Democratic races that will also be on the ballot, drawing voters to offset the number of conservatives going to polls that day, he’s bullish about the campaign’s new dynamic.
This is now a turnout election. Instead of battling for votes from undecideds and independents, both sides must focus on getting those who already agree with them to the polls.
“At the minimum, for every dollar we spend on media we will be spending two on getting out the vote,” says Miller, grateful to have clear priorities on investing his group’s cash.
“In the primary, you are of course going to get the die-hard Democrats and the die-hard Republicans. And I’m not sure that’s a pluralistic view of the state of North Carolina,” laments Marcus Brandon, the state’s only openly gay lawmaker, who says statewide polling shows voters on his side. “Nevertheless, we plan to work very hard and get our people to the polls.”
Equality North Carolina, Human Rights Campaign, and other major backers and fund-raisers have already determined which voters they need to contact. The business community is arguing that discrimination will drive away top talent. Progressive faith leaders are rallying to counteract the religious right. And organizers are fanning out to urban centers and the 16 state university campuses, where they know votes in their favor exist.
A second mistake, activists say, identified yet another constituency to target. Although existing state law bans same-sex marriage, the ballot measure outlaws any form of civil union or domestic partnership. So gay rights activists are courting unmarried straight couples worried about losing their benefits.
Both sides have less time to organize, notes Karin Quimby, a North Carolina regional field director for HRC. But she and other activists are wowed by the energy in their ranks, and the normally disparate groups are cooperating.
A little luck can’t hurt either.
“Hopefully, by Super Tuesday [in March] everything will be all wrapped up with the Republicans,” Quimby says, wishing for the emergence of a dominant presidential contender, which would lead many conservative voters to stay home.