PORTLAND, Maine — 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 that public opinion is turning in their favor.
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 last May but never took effect because of a petition drive by conservatives.
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 largely being foisted on states by judges and that the public is not ready to embrace the idea.
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.
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 put on the ballot.
In addition to reaching out to young people who flocked to the polls for President Barack Obama a year ago, gay-marriage defenders tried to appeal to Maine voters’ independent streak — the flinty, just-let-me-be attitude embodied by the state’s lobstermen, loggers and outdoorsmen.
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.
Among other ballot items across the country:
— Measures in Maine and Washington that would limit state and local government spending by holding it to the rate of inflation plus population growth.
— A measure in Maine that would allow dispensaries to supply marijuana to patients for medicinal purposes. It is a follow-up to a 1999 measure that legalized medical marijuana but did not set up a distribution system.
— An Ohio measure that would allow casinos in four major cities: Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo.