Exit polls late Friday showed that Ireland was poised to repeal its constitutional ban on abortion in a historic referendum that divided the nation during the run-up to the election.
After voting ended, an exit poll showed that 68% of the voters cast ballots to rescind the ban, which outlaws almost all abortions — even in cases of rape or health risks to a pregnant woman. The poll showed that 32% opposed any change. A second exit poll, by broadcaster RTE, showed a 69%-to-31% margin in favor of repeal.
The numbers were startling in an election that was expected to be razor-close.
Voters were asked to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which grants equal rights to life for the mother and the unborn. Irish voters approved the amendment in 1983, by a margin almost identical to that now supporting its repeal, after a massive campaign by religious groups seeking to prevent Ireland from following Britain and the U.S. in liberalizing abortion laws.
Early turnout was inconsistent in polling stations across the country but picked up in the hours before polls closed at 10 p.m., according to local news reports.
"Yes in danger of failing," read a warning issued by Together for Yes, the official pro-choice campaign, on social media at around 5 p.m. "Please get to the polls, and bring people with you!"
Thousands of Irish citizens flooded the country's ports and airports on Friday, returning from around the globe to vote. Irish voters who live abroad are not allowed to cast ballots by mail and must return if they wish to vote.
"I was actually not going to come back; I thought I couldn't afford it or take the time," said Sarah Bunce, 24, who changed her mind and arrived in Dublin from Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, to cast a ballot in her hometown of Ennis in favor of ending the abortion ban. "It's something that I feel really strongly about. I think it's progress."
Outside a polling station in central Dublin, Teresa Brody, who said she lost her first child to miscarriage 50 years ago, said she voted against ending the ban. "It was horrendous, and God help anyone who goes through with an abortion, because I went through misery and I still pray for that child," she said.
Health Minister Simon Harris promised that if the referendum passes, the center-right government would work to legalize abortion for pregnancies up to 12 weeks, and beyond that in cases in which a woman's health is at risk or the fetus is diagnosed with a fatal condition.
The minority government, however, will require support from other parties and independent politicians to pass such legislation.
The official counting of ballots will begin early Saturday. Results are expected by the early evening.