Social Issues Score Big: Voters Made History-And Surprised Many Political Observers-When They Approved Legalizing Marijuana and Same-Sex Marriages

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On Election Day, Americans voiced their opinions on more than 170 ballot measures in 38 states. They said no to most, but passed some groundbreaking ones, reversing course by slim margins on issues such as gay marriage and recreational marijuana use and even approved of increasing taxes and rejecting cuts in a few states. In some cases, they stood up to their legislatures, defeating laws already in place.

Voters in Maine and Maryland said yes to gay marriages. Citizens in Colorado approved of legalizing marijuana. And residents of Washington said yes to both.

Over the last 14 years, voters have approved 32 out of 33 statewide bans on gay marriage, but that changed this year. Voters in Maine approved the statewide measure on same-sex marriage with 52.6 percent of the vote. Referenda on gay-marriage laws passed by legislatures in Maryland and Washington also were approved, with 51.9 percent and 52 percent of the votes, respectively.

A constitutional amendment in Minnesota defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman was defeated by 51 percent of the voters. Minnesota now joins Arizona as the only states that have rejected bans on same-sex marriage. Arizona did so in 2006; however, in 2008, voters reversed course and approved one.

On the marijuana front, Colorado and Washington (again) made history when voters approved measures to legalize and control recreational marijuana for the first time. A little more than 55 percent of Washington voters and 54.8 percent in Colorado approved of the initiatives. Voters in Oregon rejected a similar measure.

Colorado's amendment allows adults over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, as long as they don't use the drug publicly. It also allows people to privately grow up to six marijuana plants. The Colorado proposal does not impose a specific tax, but instead directs the state legislature to determine the tax, although it cannot require lawmakers to do so. If a tax is imposed, the first $40 million raised each year must go toward the construction of public schools. The issue now rests in the hands of the Colorado General Assembly, which will convene in January. Colorado voters are not quite finished with the marijuana measure's details, however. State law requires them to approve any tax passed by the General Assembly before it can take effect.

Washington's initiative allows adults to buy up to an ounce of marijuana from state-licensed growers, processors and stores. It also establishes a standard blood limit for driving under the influence. It requires marijuana producers and processors to submit samples to independent labs for testing, and requires the destruction of samples that fail.

Washington will impose a 25 percent tax on various types of marijuana sales, with the majority of the revenue going to health and substance abuse programs. The state estimates revenue could be as high as $1.9 billion over five years.

Voters in Massachusetts approved legalizing medical marijuana while the Arkansas electorate turned down a similar bill. Montana voters rubber-stamped the Legislature's move to impose additional regulations on an existing medical marijuana program. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have now approved medical marijuana, although no Southern state has.

Ballot Bulge

In 38 states, citizens faced 174 different ballot measures, of which 42 were citizen initiatives. Of those, voters approved only 17. That's slightly lower than the average during the past decade, when voters approved about 45 percent of all initiatives on the ballot. Voters in Alabama, California and Florida faced a daunting 11 statewide measures each, ranging from freedom of religion to health care reform to budget and revenue caps.

There were 12 popular referenda on the ballot this year, the highest number since 1920, and half of them passed. Of the 115 measures referred by state legislatures, voters approved 85 and rejected 30. …