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For the first time, same-sex marriage was approved by voters at the ballot box rather than through a court order or legislative action. And it may have happened, not in one, but in three states. The question has won in Maine and Maryland. Counting is still under way in Washington state, but supporters there are claiming victory. Add to that Minnesota. Voters there also sided with gay marriage, rejecting a constitutional amendment to ban it. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's always hard to sort out the spin this time of year. And while gay marriage advocates were claiming confidence going into yesterday's votes, it's worth noting that behind closed doors, when they were prewriting their post-election press release, they had one version for winning two states, another in case they won three, but nothing for winning all four.
BRIAN ELLNER: Never in our wildest dreams did we expect that we would sweep this thing.
SMITH: Brian Ellner is with the gay marriage advocacy group TheFOUR.com.
ELLNER: I mean, the truth is winning one would have been historic. Winning two would have been tremendous. Winning four is seismic. It was a stunning night for us.
SMITH: Depending on how the vote turns out in Washington, yesterday's three or four wins snap a long 32-vote losing streak for gay marriage and bolster advocates' claims that public opinion is rapidly evolving toward acceptance. The point was especially evident in Maine where voters like Scott Hamlin approved a gay marriage ballot question just three years after a similar one failed.
SCOTT HAMLIN: Yeah, I vote for, you know, anybody should be able to marry whoever they want. So lately in the last couple of years, I've mellowed a little bit and so, you know, live and let live, I say.
CHAD GRIFFIN: We have seen 16 national polls show that we have now crossed the line of a majority of Americans supporting marriage equality. Last night, those polls were proven out.
SMITH: Chad Griffin is head of the Human Rights Campaign. He says the four ballot wins, along with the re-election of President Obama after he endorsed gay marriage and wins by other gay-friendly candidates point to a watershed moment.
GRIFFIN: There's no question. It was a turning point, and there is no question that momentum is on our side.
BRIAN BROWN: I don't see how you can view this as any sort of tipping point. This only speaks to these states. These are the deepest of blue states.
SMITH: Brian Brown is from the National Organization for Marriage that helped run opposition to same-sex marriage. He called last night's vote disappointing but rejects what he calls a myth of inevitability suggesting gay marriage has kind of maxed out its potential.
BROWN: Well, it was a very - it was a bad night for traditional marriage, and there was a pretty big Democratic wave that we got caught up in. But the reality is that there aren't many more places that are as liberal as these states that have voted that don't already have same-sex marriage.
SMITH: Brown says opponents were greatly outspent in the four battles, and yesterday's wins reflect a fundraising victory more than any moral or political one.
GRIFFIN: God, I'd hate to have that spin job.
SMITH: Chad Griffin from the HRC says evidence for gay marriage support goes far beyond the four ballot questions. For example, in Iowa, while three Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of gay marriage were ousted two years ago, last night, a fourth justice survived. One thing both sides agree on, yesterday's vote comes at a critical time as the U.S. Supreme Court could decide in the next year whether it's constitutional for states to ban gay marriage or for the federal government to withhold recognition when states allow it. Gay marriage advocate Brian Ellner says justices will take note of what voters said yesterday.
ELLNER: Courts are by nature somewhat cautious. It's very rare that they go far outside of the prevailing winds and where public opinion is. And now, it's very clear to this court that public opinion is clearly standing in support of marriage equality.
SMITH: Meantime, the state-by-state battle will continue. Both sides are already talking about fights next year in Delaware, Rhode Island and Illinois, and renewed focus on a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.