Voters a continent apart made history Tuesday on two divisive social issues, with Maine and Maryland becoming the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote and Washington state legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
The outcomes in Maine and Maryland broke a 32-state streak, dating back to 1998, in which gay marriage had been rebuffed by every state that voted on it. They will become the seventh and eighth states to legalize gay marriage.
“For the first time, voters in Maine and Maryland voted to allow loving couples to make lifelong commitments through marriage – forever taking away the right-wing talking point that marriage equality couldn’t win on the ballot,” said Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group.
Washington state also was voting on a measure to legalize same-sex marriage, while Minnesota voters were considering a conservative-backed amendment that would place a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution.
The outcomes could possibly influence the U.S. Supreme Court, which will soon consider whether to take up cases challenging the law that denies federal recognition to same-sex marriages.
The marijuana measure in Washington sets up a showdown with the federal government, which outlaws the drug. The measure establishes a system of state-licensed marijuana growers, processors and retail stores, where adults older than 21 can buy up to an ounce. It also establishes a standard blood test limit for driving under the influence.
The measure was notable for its sponsors and supporters, who ranged from public health experts and wealthy high-tech executives to two of the Justice Department’s top former officials in Seattle, U.S. Attorneys John McKay and Kate Pflaumer.
“Marijuana policy reform remains an issue where the people lead and the politicians follow,” said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes the co-called “war on drugs.”
Estimates showed pot taxes could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but the sales won’t start until state officials make rules to govern the legal weed industry.
Similar measures were on the ballot in Colorado and Oregon. In Massachusetts, voters approved a measure to allow marijuana use for medical reasons, joining 17 other states. Arkansas voters were deciding on a similar measure that would make it the first Southern state in that group.
Maine’s referendum on same-sex marriage marked the first time that gay-rights supporters put the issue to a popular vote. They collected enough signatures over the summer to schedule the vote, hoping to reverse the outcome of a 2009 referendum that quashed a gay-marriage law enacted by the Legislature.
In Maryland and Washington, gay-marriage laws were approved by lawmakers and signed by the governors earlier this year, but opponents gathered enough signatures to challenge the laws.
In Minnesota, the question was whether the state would join 30 others in placing a ban on gay marriage in its constitution. Even if the ban is defeated, same-sex marriage would remain illegal in Minnesota under statute.
Heading into the election, gay marriage was legal in six states and the District of Columbia – in each case the result of legislation or court orders, not by a vote of the people.
In California, voters were deciding whether to repeal the state’s death penalty. If the measure prevailed, the more than 720 inmates on death row there would have their sentences converted to life in prison.
While 17 states have ended capital punishment, most did so through legislative action. Only in Oregon, in 1964, did voters choose to repeal the death penalty; they later reversed themselves to reinstate it.
In all, there were 176 measures on the ballots Tuesday in 38 states, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
Other notable ballot measures:
• Maryland voters approved a measure allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition, provided they attended a state high school for three years and can show they filed state income tax returns during that time. About a dozen other states have similar laws, but Maryland’s is the first to be approved by voters.
• In Oklahoma, voters approved a Republican-backed measure that wipes out all affirmative action programs in state government hiring, education and contracting practices. Similar steps have been taken previously in Arizona, California, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington.
• Florida voters rejected a proposal that would have banned government mandates for obtaining insurance such as required by President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. Floridians also rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have limited revenue growth to match increases in population and cost of living.