Gay marriage was put to a vote in Maine on Tuesday in a closely watched referendum that gay-rights activists across the country hoped would prove for the first time that their cause can prevail at the ballot box.
Voters had to decide whether to repeal or affirm a state law that would allow gay couples to wed. The law was passed by the Legislature in May but never took effect because of a petition drive by conservatives.
Early returns showed a close contest, as forecast. With 229 of 608 precincts reporting, each side had 50 percent.
A vote to uphold the law would mark the first time that the electorate in any state endorsed gay marriage. That could energize activists nationwide and blunt conservative claims that same-sex marriage is being foisted on states by judges or lawmakers over the will of the public.
However, repeal — in New England, the region of the country most supportive of gay couples — would be another heartbreaking defeat for the marriage-equality movement, following the vote against gay marriage in California a year ago.
It would also mark the first time voters had torpedoed a gay-marriage law enacted by a legislature. When Californians rejected same-sex marriage, it was in response to a court ruling, not legislation.
Maine's secretary of state, Matthew Dunlap, said turnout seemed higher than expected for an off-year election and voter interest appeared intense. Even before Tuesday, more than 100,000 people — out of about 1 million registered voters — had voted by absentee ballot or early voting.
Five other states have legalized gay marriage — Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut — but all did so through legislation or court rulings, not by popular vote. In contrast, constitutional amendments banning gay marriage have been approved in all 30 states where they have been on the ballot.
"If we don't win, then Maine will have its place in infamy because no state has ever voted for homosexual marriage," said Chuck Schott of Portland, who stood near a polling place in Maine's biggest city with a pro-repeal campaign sign.
Another Portland resident, Sarah Holman said she was "very torn" but decided — despite her conservative upbringing — to vote in favor of letting gays marry.
"They love and they have the right to love. And we can't tell somebody how to love," said Holman, 26.
Hundreds of gay-marriage supporters gathered in a Portland hotel ballroom in the evening to await the results. On display was a three-tiered wedding cake topped with two grooms on one side, two brides on the other, and the words "We All Do."
In addition to reaching out to young people who flocked to the polls for President Obama a year ago, gay-marriage defenders tried to appeal to Maine voters' independent streak — a Yankee spirit of fairness and live-and-let-live.
The other side based many of its campaign ads on claims — disputed by state officials — that the new law would mean "homosexual marriage" would be taught in public schools.
Both sides in Maine drew volunteers and contributions from out of state, but the money edge went to the campaign in defense of gay marriage, Protect Maine Equality. It raised $4 million, compared with $2.5 million for Stand for Marriage Maine.
Elsewhere on Tuesday, voters in Washington state decided whether to uphold or overturn a recently expanded domestic partnership law that entitles same-sex couples to the same state-granted rights as heterosexual married couples. And in Kalamazoo, Mich., voters approved a measure that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.
This program aired on November 3, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.