U.S. voters 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 and Colorado legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

The outcomes in Maine and Maryland broke a 32-state pattern, dating back to 1998, in which gay marriage had been rebuffed by every state that held a public vote on it. They will become the seventh and eighth states to allow same-sex couples to marry — six states have already approved gay marriage, but the decisions there were actions taken by judges or legislators, not voters.

The referendum coincided with the presidential election and was part of 176 additional ballot initiatives in 38 states that included questions on a range of social and fiscal issues, such as state tax measures, the minimum wage or bond issues. Voters in Michigan, for example, were asked to approve that any future bridge or tunnel to Canada must be sanctioned by the public before state funds could be advanced (the voters rejected the proposal). 

But it was the ballot questions dealing with major social issues that attracted the most attention.

Here are some of the issues voters weighed in on, and what's being said about the results.

Same-sex marriage

Maine: Citizens voted in favour of allowing the state to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples, thereby overturning a 2009 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriages. One leading advocacy group, Freedom to Marry, said Maine is expected to begin issuing marriage licences in mid-December.

  • Marc Soloman, Freedom to Marry National Campaign Director, said in a news release: "It's hard to overstate the national significance of this vote. Now the commitment gay and lesbian couples have made in life will be respected equally under the law, celebrated before their loved ones, and called what it is: marriage."

Maryland: In a veto referendum, 51.9 per cent of voters supported Maryland’s civil marriage law, which allows gay and lesbian couples to get a civil marriage licence as of Jan. 1, 2013.

  • Human Rights Campaign's Kevin Nix told CNN. "It was a little bit pins and needles. It was going to be a close call all along."
  • Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group said: "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."

Washington: Voters passed Referendum 74, which asked if same-sex marriage should be legal in the state of Washington, with 52 per cent voting in favour. The state had already passed a measure earlier this year to give same-sex couples the right to marry.

  • Zach Silk, Washington United for Marriage (WUM): "This is an historic day for Washington, an historic day for our country and, most of all, for families across the state who have dreamed of this day and the wedding celebrations to come."

Minnesota: Voters defeated Amendment 1 that would have placed a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution. Similar measures have been approved in 30 other states, most recently in North Carolina in May.

Marijuana

Colorado: Citizens voted in favour of allowing people 21 years of age or older to legally possess limited amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Colorado already allows medicinal use of the drug.

  • Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a statement: "The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don't break out the Cheetos or Gold Fish too quickly."

  • Mason Tvert, co-director of the Colorado pro-legalization campaign, told Reuters: "Colorado will no longer have laws that steer people toward using alcohol, and adults will be free to use marijuana instead if that is what they prefer. And we will be better off as a society because of it."

Washington: Voters backed Initiative 502, which asked if people aged 21 and over should be allowed to legally possess small amounts of marijuana. Now that it is approved, the sale of marijuana will be regulated and licensed by the state’s liquor control board.

Massachusetts: Voters approved the medical use of marijuana. The law will eliminate state criminal and civil penalties by "qualifying" patients. A patient would have to be diagnosed with a "debilitating medical condition, such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV-positive status or AIDS, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, or multiple sclerosis," according to the state attorney-general.

Oregon: Oregon voters rejected Measure 80 on the state ballot, which asked whether marijuana should be legalized, sold and taxed through state-licensed stores. The measure earned less than 45 per cent of voters’ support. Oregon currently allows and regulates the medical use of marijuana, but all other use is illegal.

Arkansas: Voters rejected Issue 5 on the Arkansas ballot, which asked voters to approve a law that would allow the medical use of marijuana, according to Associated Press. The proposal's backers wanted Arkansas to become the first Southern state to legalize such sales.

Windsor-Detroit Bridge

Michigan: Voters defeated Proposal 6, which would have called for a statewide vote on plans for any new international crossing, including a proposed new bridge that would link Windsor, Ont., to Detroit. Slightly more than 60 per cent of voters turned down the proposal, which would have been entrenched in the state's Constitution. The bridge would provide competition for the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge, Canada's busiest border crossing, owned by billionaire Matty Moroun. Moroun was behind the ballot proposal and spent more than $30 million in advertising to promote it to sway voters.

  • Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised the decision: "We're very pleased to see the support of the people of Michigan for the new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, which is very important to the economies of both our countries. I look forward, in particular, to working with [President Barack Obama] on the Beyond the Border initiative, which is obviously very important for the opportunities for Canadians and Americans going forward."
  • Matt Marchand, president of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce, said: "We're just looking forward to new cross-border infrastructure and if there are hurdles thrown at it, so be it. At the end of the day, there's an agreement signed by the prime minister and the governor, along with the voters from Michigan giving the go-ahead."

Death penalty

California: Voters declined to abolish capital punishment in the state, rejecting Proposition 34 by a 47-53 vote. The initiative statute would have eliminated the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. California is one of 33 states that currently sanction capital punishment.

  • Alba Morales, United States criminal justice researcher at Human Rights Watch: "California was poised to become the sixth state in five years to abolish the death penalty; instead, today's vote has left a costly and cruel system in place. It is now time for others, including the governor and legislature, to put an end to capital punishment in the state."

Abortion

Florida: Florida voters rejected Amendment 6, which was a prohibition on public funds being used for abortions or for health-benefits coverage that includes abortion. Exceptions would be made where federal law requires coverage, if the mother’s life is in danger, or in cases of rape or incest. Fifty-five per cent of voters rejected the measure, with 45 per cent in favour, according to NBC and CNN.

Montana: Montana voters approved Legislative Referendum 120 that would make it a crime for physicians to perform an abortion on a person under the age of 16 unless the parents or legal guardians are notified at least 48 hours in advance. Notice would not be required in cases of medical emergencies or if a youth court waived the requirement.

Assisted suicide

Massachusetts: A divisive ballot initiative that would allow terminally ill patients to end their lives with medication prescribed by physicians was narrowly defeated. The Death with Dignity Campaign conceded early Wednesday morning as preliminary results indicated opponents turned in 51 per cent of the vote, or about 38,000 more votes than supporters, with 93 per cent of precincts reporting, according to the State House News Service.

  • Death with Dignity Campaign statement: "For the past year, the people of Massachusetts participated in an open and honest conversation about allowing terminally-ill patients the choice to end their suffering. The Death with Dignity Act offered the terminally-ill the right to make that decision for themselves, but regrettably, we fell short. Our grassroots campaign was fueled by thousands of people from across this state, but outspent five to one by groups opposed to individual choice.
  • Rosanne Bacon Meade, chairperson of the Committee Against Assisted Suicide, said in a statement: "We believe Question 2 was defeated because the voters came to see this as a flawed approach to end of life care, lacking in the most basic safeguards. A broad coalition of medical professionals, religious leaders, elected officials and, voters from across the political spectrum made clear that these flaws were too troubling for a question of such consequence."