Will black votes sway Amendment 2?

11/03/08 Emily Reddy
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The line snaked across the parking lot, down the block and around the corner on the last day of early voting Saturday at the College Hill Library in Tampa. Voters in this primarily African-American community waited for as long as three hours to cast their ballots.

Massive voter registration drives and excitement over presidential candidate Barack Obama are expected to lead to record turnout in this election. And this year’s higher than average African-American turnout could make a controversial amendment to the state constitution more likely to pass.

The majority of voters at the College Hill early voting site wore Obama shirts, pins and stickers. Vendors sold ice cream, barbecue, and bootleg T-shirts. Candidates shook hands and their supporters waved signs. Pastor Ernest Braxton walked back and forth beside the line carrying a sign reading “YesOn2.”

If Amendment 2 passes, the definition of marriage as “one man and one woman” will be added to the Florida state constitution. Braxton has been working the College Hill voting place regularly. He and many other religious leaders throughout the state support the amendment, saying Amendment 2 would protect "traditional marriage" and that children are better raised by a married mother and father.

Opponents argument that the language of the amendment is so broad it would threaten unions similar to marriage, like domestic partnerships. That doesn’t carry any weight with Braxton.

"We feel that God created marriage as the first institution. And we believe that man and woman should get married. You know, if a person been with a person 30 years, they should get married. Why not get married? If you love a person, and committed to them, get married. But we oppose same-sex marriage, that’s it."

African-American Democrats are generally more socially conservative than whites in the party. A joint poll by the St. Petersburg Times, Bay News 9 and the Miami Herald found that while fewer than 50 percent of Democrats statewide support Amendment 2, nearly 70 percent of black voters support it. Many of those planning to vote Yes cited the Bible and God’s law.

Jimmy Aikens plans to vote Yes.

"That’s the way God made it, intended for it to be. For a man and a woman to marry, not any other way, you know.'

Near the end of the line, Hayden Sutherland makes his umpteenth speech against Amendment 2. He’s been at the library at least 7 hours a day, every day for the last two weeks.

"Gay marriage is illegal in the state of Florida. There are four laws that make gay marriage illegal. This amendment will not make it any more illegal than it is already. What this will do is take away domestic partner benefits."

However supporters of the amendment say that laws aren’t enough. They point to California, where judges overturned the laws and allowed gay couples to get married. California also has a marriage amendment on its ballot tomorrow, as does Arizona. But Florida’s amendment goes further than either of these. It says that no other legal union that is treated as marriage or a substantial equivalent will be valid.

Supporters of Amendment 2 say that no one will lose any benefits, but in Michigan, where a similar amendment passed in 2004, the Supreme Court has recently ruled that its marriage amendment prohibits public employers from extending health insurance benefits to domestic partners.

"We have a lot of good people who have been misled, including pastors."

"Well, I’m in line. It’s a long line, so I’ll have time to look on it. See what my vote’s going to be, what it’s all about and how it affects me."

Half an hour after listening to Hayden’s spiel and reading the materials he gave her, Cheryl Miller has decided to vote No. Miller was in a domestic partnership for six years.

"I was in that situation where I was with someone, we had a child together, and we were unmarried and for someone to deny us benefits because we’re not married, I think that’s absolutely wrong."

Some of those waiting in the line plan only to vote for president. They’ll leave the Amendment 2 question blank.

But perhaps campaigning by the No On 2 contingency is having some effect in African American communities. Most of those in line at the College Hill Library went into the voting booth clutching a slate of candidates and ballot questions handed out by the Hillsborough County Democratic Black Caucus. The slate suggests a No vote on Amendment 2. Some of those who came just to vote for president will surely follow its recommendations.

For others, the endorsement of Amendment 2 by one man is enough to decide it for them. Again, Hayden Sutherland.

"When they see that Obama and the NAACP have supported a no vote, it makes them immediately take another look at it."

So, whether Amendment 2 passes may just come down to which side reaches more voters.

Corey Seals has received one message loud and clear and has decided how he’s going to vote. "Because Barack Obama opposes it. So, that’s the way I’m going…good enough for me."

Other opponents of the amendment include the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and the Florida Nurses Association. Sixty percent of voters must support the amendment for it to become law.

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