Gay-rights advocates hailed Tuesday’s election as a watershed moment in their quest for equal rights, after voters in four states voiced support for same-sex marriage at the polls.
The results marked a dramatic turnaround from years of ballot defeats and signaled growing public support for extending marriage rights to gay couples.
“It’s an absolutely historic day,” said Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, which backed the four ballot campaigns. “It is extraordinarily gratifying to have the freedom to marry approved at the ballot box.”
Maine and Maryland became the first states to legalize same-sex marriage by the ballot, and Washington appeared poised to do the same as the votes were still being counted. Voters in Minnesota defeated a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, the first time such a measure had failed, and voters in Iowa backed a Supreme Court justice who was part of a historic ruling that legalized gay marriage in that state. Wisconsin elected the country’s first openly gay US senator, Tammy Baldwin.
Before this election, American voters had rejected same-sex marriage every time it appeared on the ballot, voicing consistent opposition across 32 states. While courts and legislatures had backed same-sex marriage, opponents often noted that a majority of voters never had.
But polls had indicated changing public attitudes, and advocates remained confident a breakthrough was inevitable.
“In my mind, it was never a question of ‘if’ we would win,” said Kara Suffredini, executive director of MassEquality, a gay-rights group. “It was just a question of when.”
Supporters said they will continue to press for marriage rights in other states, such as Rhode Island — the only state in New England where it is not legal — Delaware, and New Jersey, and expressed hope that the Supreme Court will review the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages. The court is expected to decide later this month whether to hear challenges to the law.
Michael Cole-Schwartz of the Human Rights Campaign, a key supporter of the ballot campaigns, said the election results represent a “landslide victory for marriage equality,” and lend momentum to the cause.
“We have forever taken away the talking point that marriage equality cannot win at the ballot box,” he said. “This is clearly a monumental turning point.”
Three years ago, voters in Maine overturned legislation that would have allowed gay people to marry. But advocates sensed that opinion was shifting, and decided the issue deserved a second chance. With nearly all the votes counted, 52 percent of voters were in favor of a ballot question to allow same-sex marriage.
“We took a weapon that has been used against same-sex couples for years, and turned it into a tool for progress,” said David Farmer of Mainers United for Marriage, which led the ballot campaign. “They had pitched a shutout on us, but we showed that people can change their minds on this issue.”
He said the four victories show how much public opinion has shifted and will serve as a “catalyst for further change.”
Carroll Conley, a spokesman for Protect Marriage Maine, which opposed the ballot question, said he was surprised by proponents’ ability to persuade voters and spur them to the polls.
“The voter intensity for the progressives was markedly greater than we thought,” he said. “They ran a very effective campaign.”
Conley said that while attitudes on the issue had clearly shifted, he was not sure the vote accurately reflected public opinion as a whole, noting strong Democratic turnout nationally.
The National Organization for Marriage, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, said the country remains “strongly in favor” of marriage defined as the union of a man and a woman.
“Our opponents and some in the media will attempt to portray the election results as a changing point in how Americans view gay marriage, but that is not the case,” Brian Brown, the group’s president, said in a statement. “The election results reflect the political and funding advantages our opponents enjoyed in these very liberal states.”
In Minnesota, the chairman of Minnesota for Marriage said that “we know that God has defined marriage as between one man and one woman, regardless of the efforts of some to overthrow his design.”
Gay-rights advocates said they oppose having to secure something they say should be a fundamental right through the ballot, but saw the vote as a tipping point toward greater acceptance.
“The more people know us, the more they are with us,” Suffredini said.Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.