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Primary Vote on Gay Marriage 'Lesser of Two Evils' for Democratic Lawmakers

North Carolina voters will decide whether to ban same-sex marriage in the state's constitution next May, rather than in the November general election. The timing has serious political implications. Same-sex marriage is already illegal in North Carolina, but this is the only southern state that has yet to actually write that ban into its constitution. The vote to put it on the ballot fell mostly along party lines at the state legislature this week. Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer says Democrats were in a tough spot. Without enough votes to defeat the measure, opponents saw putting it on the primary ballot as a way to "take the lesser of the two evils and see what happens eventually in the courts." The calculus went something like this: put the same-sex marriage ban on the general election ballot in November and Democrats from President Obama on down could see themselves washed out by the droves of social conservatives drawn to the polls for the marriage amendment. Or, put it on the primary ballot where the ban has an even better chance of winning because Republicans will be turning out to choose their presidential nominee. Democrats could see the writing on the wall, says Eric Heberlig of the UNC Charlotte political science department. "If (a marriage amendment) wins in California, it's highly likely to win in Bible Belt states like North Carolina," says Heberlig. "So if it's gonna win anyway, you might as well have it win at a time that's not going to impact your political career." Republicans in the North Carolina legislature are also taking advantage of political winds. When most other states were amending their constitutions to ban gay marriage four and five years ago, North Carolina's legislature was controlled by Democrats who refused to put the question on the ballot. Heberlig says Republicans are seizing their opportunity in power to get the amendment through, while simultaneously using the issue to win points with conservative independent voters who will be important in the 2012 general election.