The nation’s attention was focused on President Barack Obama’s impressive re-election, but voters across the United States also made history on two divisive social issues: same-sex marriage and drugs.
Maine and Maryland on Tuesday became the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, while Washington and Colorado legalised the recreational use of marijuana.
Minnesota also rejected an initiative to ban gay marriage, and a law approving it seemed on track to pass referendum in Washington.
Those votes were only the most-watched of a host of state ballot measures up for popular referendum.
Voters were asked whether to outlaw the death penalty and raise taxes in California; to outlaw the use of public funds for abortions in Florida; and to provide lower college tuition costs for undocumented immigrants in Maryland.
The outcome in Maine and Maryland broke a 32-state streak, dating back to 1998, in which gay marriage had been rebuffed each time. They will become the seventh and eighth states to allow same-sex couples to marry.
“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.
The marijuana measures in Colorado and Washington set up a showdown with the federal government, which still outlaws the drug.
Colorado’s Amendment 64 will allow adults over 21 to possess up to 28 grams of marijuana, though using the drug publicly would still be banned.
The amendment would also allow people to grow up to six marijuana plants in a private, secure area.
Washington’s measure establishes a system of state-licensed marijuana growers, processors and retail stores, where adults can buy up to 28 marijuana grams. It also establishes a standard blood test limit for driving under the influence.
The Washington 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, lawyers 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”.
“But Washington state shows that many politicians are beginning to catch up.”
Estimates show that cannabis taxes could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but the sales will not start until state officials make rules to govern the legal cannabis industry.
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.
In California, where medical marijuana use has been approved by referendum since 1996, the federal government has continued to raid even state-licensed dispensaries, and the drug’s undecided legal status has created a thriving black market.
Voters in the state rejected a plan to legalise marijuana in 2010.
On Tuesday, California voters appeared to reject the ballot measure outlawing the death penalty, though results were still coming in. If the measure prevailed, more than 720 inmates on death row would have had 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 Florida, voters appeared to reject the measure that would have created a state constitutional amendment prohibiting public funding for abortions, which the state does not provide anyway.
And in Maryland, voters approved the DREAM Act, the state version of a piece of federal legislation that Obama supports but which has been rejected by Congress.
The law allows undocumented immigrant youth – those who one way or another have entered or are present in the United States illegally – to obtain lower-cost in-state university tuition rates if they meet certain criteria, such as having attended a state high school for at least three years.
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 annulled a gay-marriage law enacted by the state Legislature.
In both Maryland and Washington, gay-marriage laws were approved by legislators and signed by the governors earlier this year, but opponents gathered enough signatures to challenge the laws.
The president of the most active advocacy group opposing same-sex marriage, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, insisted the Maryland and Maine results did not mark a watershed moment.
“At the end of the day, we’re still at 32 victories and they’ve got two,” he said. “Just because two extreme blue states vote for gay marriage doesn’t mean the Supreme Court will create a constitutional right for it out of thin air.”
In all, there were 176 measures on the ballots on Tuesday in 38 states, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
In Oklahoma, voters approved a Republican-backed measure that wipes out all affirmative action programmes in state government hiring, education and contracting practices. Similar steps have been taken previously in Arizona, California, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington.
In Michigan, labour unions suffered a big loss. Voters rejected a first-of-its-kind ballot initiative that would have put collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.