PITTSBORO, N.C. — With voting already under way for Tuesday's primary, the discourse has been dominated not by candidates but by a bitterly contested measure known as Amendment 1.
If approved, it would be among the most restrictive of the marriage amendments passed in 30 states. It would amend the state's constitution to specify: "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."
The battle over the measure has turned North Carolina into a national political flash point. Opponents say the amendment is so broadly worded that it would discriminate not only against gays, but also unmarried heterosexual couples.
The outcome could offer a hint of the state's leanings in November's presidential election: North Carolina, home to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, is an important swing state.
The debate has been fierce. Pro- and anti-amendment activists have held rallies to vie for voters. Ministers have strived to influence their congregants. Lawn signs have been stolen and defaced. And the state NAACP has accused proponents of trying to divide gays and blacks.
Opponents of the amendment have raised $2.2 million, and proponents $1.2 million, mostly for TV and radio ads; a third of the money has come from out of state.
The Rev. Billy Graham has weighed in, preparing a full-page ad expected to appear in newspapers. In it, he urges fellow Tar Heels to vote for the amendment, saying: "At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage."
President Barack Obama has called the Republican-backed Defense of Marriage Amendment divisive, saying it would discriminate against gays.
"It's a hot issue — you hear people talking about it everywhere," said amendment supporter Ray McEntee. He was manning a booth outside a Pittsboro polling place next to a sign that read: "One Man. One Woman."
Like amendments in Michigan, Idaho and South Carolina, North Carolina's act would severely limit protections for same-sex and heterosexual unmarried couples, said Maxine Eichner, a family law professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
The measure would threaten domestic partnership health benefits for local government workers and strip unmarried couples of their rights to make decisions for an incapacitated partner, Eichner said.
Supporters of Amendment 1 say unmarried couples would be protected by language that permits private contracts and court actions "pursuant to such contracts."
In North Carolina, the issue does not always break along party lines. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People opposes the amendment, but numerous black churches support it.
More than 75 chief executives have signed a letter against the amendment. Jim Rogers, chief executive of Duke Energy, told a business forum last month: "If this passes, we're going to look back 20 years from now, or 10 years, and think of it like Jim Crow laws. … You're sending a message to the world that we're not inclusive."