PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine residents approved same-sex marriage in a historic vote Tuesday, giving the gay rights movement a long-sought breakthrough victory and handing a defeat to opponents who were far outspent in the run-up to the election.
Three other states — Maryland, Washington and Minnesota — also held votes on gay marriage Tuesday. Maine’s results were the first called by The Associated Press, perhaps giving it the distinction of being the first to approve same-sex marriage in a popular vote.
Gay marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia, but those laws were either enacted by lawmakers or through court rulings. In popular votes, 32 states had previously held elections on same-sex marriage, with all losing.
Maine was the first place where gay marriage supporters had collected enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot themselves. Opponents had feared that if the ballot measure passed, same-sex marriage advocates would have held up Maine to bolster their argument that public opinion has changed over the years in favor of legalizing gay marriage.
Matt McTighe, campaign manager for the Mainers United for Marriage group, said Mainers were receptive to the message that all ‘‘loving, committed couples’’ had the right to marry. He said his campaign talked to more than 200,000 people one-on-one on the phone or in person in the past three years.
‘‘Over the years, we've had a chance to change hearts and minds, and we've now made history here,’’ he said.
Carroll Conley, head of the Protect Marriage Maine group that opposed the measure, said all signs had pointed to a referendum victory, but he wasn’t ready to concede late Tuesday.
The effective date of the law will be set after the vote is officially tabulated and the governor signs a proclamation, but it will go into effect no later than Jan. 4, according to the secretary of state’s office.
With nearly half the state’s precincts reporting, including the largest city of Portland, the measure was passing by more than 5 percentage points. Tuesday’s results reverse a choice voters made in 2009, when they overturned the Legislature’s gay marriage law 53 percent to 47 percent.
Since then, many public opinion polls have shown a shift in favor of gay marriage rights, the ban on gays serving openly in the military has been lifted, and President Barack Obama has endorsed the right of gay couples to marry and ordered the Justice Department to stop enforcing the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
After casting her ballot at Portland polling place, Florence Pooler, 75, said she supports legalizing same-sex marriage.
‘‘People have been together for 60 years and can’t get married because they’re gay,’’ the retiree said. ‘‘Come on, give them a break.’’
But Shane Leroux, 45, said gay marriage conflicts with his viewpoints and how he was brought up. ‘‘I just don’t believe in it,’’ Leroux said.
The campaign talked to more than 200,000 Mainers one on one, in person and by phone, to make the case that gay marriage is about giving ‘‘loving, committed couples’’ the right to marry, just like heterosexual couples.
Opponents claimed that allowing people of the same sex to marry was essentially a redefinition of the institution that would have consequences on society and a chilling effect on freedom of expression and people’s religious convictions.
Referendum supporters raised far more money than opponents. Mainers United for Marriage, the political action committee that spearheaded the campaign in favor of the ballot question, raised more than four times as much money as Protect Marriage Maine, the PAC leading the opposition.
Most of Protect Marriage Maine’s money came from the National Organization for Marriage, a leading national anti-gay marriage group that has opposed same-sex initiatives in multiple states.
The Roman Catholic Church raised money and spoke out against gay marriage in the 2009 campaign, but the church for the most part stayed out of the fray this time around. Bishop Richard Malone did issue a statement in late October saying Catholics who support same-sex marriage are ‘‘unfaithful to Catholic doctrine.’’
Throughout this year’s campaign, polls showed that the referendum had enough support among voters to win. But supporters never felt too comfortable after the gay marriage law went down in defeat in 2009.
That year, supporters had Maine’s governor, legislative leaders and major newspapers on their side, as well as a huge edge in campaign funding. Many polls that year also indicated there was enough support to legalize gay marriage, but in the end Mainers nixed the state’s same-sex marriage law, becoming the first state to overturn a gay marriage law passed by a legislature.