Lawmakers in the state are trying to pass bill that would raise the minimum age for marriage from 14 to 16, with parental consent. It would also prohibit anyone over the age of 20 from marrying a 16-year-old.
NPR spoke with Drew Reisinger, the register of deeds in Buncombe County, who said the measure was a good start, but more would need to be done to protect children.
"We will have moved the needle and made North Carolina no longer at the very bottom of the barrel of states," he said, noting that "we're still going to be putting a lot of children in harm's way."
Though it would stop short of critics' calls for the age to increase to 18, it would bring the state's policies in line with the majority of the country's.
In most states, minors can get married with their parent's consent at 16. Some states, like Delaware and Minnesota, outright ban minors from marrying.
Other states, like California, have no minimum age for minors marrying with parental consent, though any minor hoping to marry has to go through an extensive review process involving both families meeting with the courts and a 30-day waiting period.
Mississippi has one of the stranger state laws. The age of consent for sex in the state is 21, but women can marry at age 15, and men can marry at 17, with parental consent necessary in both cases.
North Carolina's lax laws when compared to the rest of the US have attracted adult men who wanted to marry the teenagers they were dating. Last year in Buncombe County, two-thirds of its processed marriage applications included one person under the age of 18 who was living outside of North Carolina.
Mr Reisinger told NPR that a 49-year-old man recently arrived from Kentucky to fill out an application to marry his 17-year-old girlfriend.
The international Centre for Research on Women study found that nearly 8,800 minors were listed on marriage licences in the state between 2000 and 2015, making it one of the top five states for child marriages during that time. Their data also suggested that 93 per cent of marriage applications it reviewed for the state between 2000 and 2019 involved a minor marrying an adult.
The debate over the state's marriage age is one of the few policy issues that does not fall along red-blue lines. According to state Senator Vickie Sawyer, a Republican from Davidson County, the battle lines are generational, not partisan.
"It's a generational divide," she told NPR. "It was older members – both Democrat and Republicans – that had those personal stories of family members who had been married and it turned out okay."
Ms Sawyer entered the fray when she sponsored a bill that would raise the marriage age to 18. After a compromise, the bill was unanimously passed by the House on Wednesday, setting the marriage age at 16 with parental consent.
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