By the time the polls closed Tuesday, Maryland voters had done something unprecedented — twice. They narrowly approved one ballot measure allowing same-sex marriage and gave broad approval to another that extends in-state college tuition rates to some illegal immigrants.
No similar measures — in which majorities conferred rights on minorities — had ever been enacted by a public vote in any state. The fact that both happened on a single ballot not only revealed a lot about the electorate in deep-blue Maryland but also offered a glimpse of where the nation may be headed on some pivotal cultural issues.
Maryland, the only one of the 13 colonies founded by Roman Catholics, has long had a culturally conservative element. It also has the largest African American electorate of any state outside the Deep South, and in Prince George’s County, its largest majority-black jurisdiction, megachurches are an important part of the religious landscape.
But exit polls suggested that the initiatives on same-sex marriage and immigrant tuition were propelled to victory by a new coalition made up of some of the same demographic groups that were key to President Obama’s win, including younger voters, minorities and the white professional class.
“It’s a reflection of Maryland’s progressive values but also of the timing of this election, which captured where the country is going more broadly,” said Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic consultant in Maryland.
Both same-sex marriage and the state’s version of the Dream Act were championed with considerable risk by the politically ambitious Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who also helped secure victories Tuesday on ballot measures to expand gambling in Maryland and uphold the state’s recently passed congressional district map.
The wins helped secure a legacy for O’Malley in Annapolis that he could use to promote himself to liberal Democrats if he pursues the presidency in 2016. Losses on the higher-profile measures would have been embarrassing, given how closely associated he became with the causes.
Despite passage of the same-sex marriage initiative, Marylanders were sharply divided on the issue. Statewide, 52 percent voted to uphold the state’s new law, while 48 percent voted to reject it.
The measure carried in only six of the state’s 24 jurisdictions. Most of those were Maryland’s largest, located along the Baltimore-Washington corridor, and they included Montgomery County, where support ran 2 to 1.
The Dream Act passed statewide by a far larger margin, 58 percent to 42 percent. But the measure was approved in only seven counties and the city of Baltimore. In one of the seven, Prince George’s — the state’s second-largest jurisdiction — the margin was nearly 3 to 1.
“Maryland is a unique state in some ways,” said Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland. “It’s very diverse . . . but the more populous parts of the state are increasingly progressive.”
Before Tuesday, no state had approved same-sex marriage at the polls. Joining Maryland in that distinction were Maine and possibly Washington, where supporters of a similar measure claimed victory Wednesday as votes continued to be counted.
Meanwhile, a bid to write a ban on same-sex marriage into the Minnesota constitution was voted down Tuesday.
Collectively, the results bucked a long trend: Gay rights supporters had previously lost at the ballot box in more than 30 states.
Same-sex-marriage advocates now have reason to be hopeful that other victories are around the corner, even though some conservative states are unlikely to take similar action in the foreseeable future.
Exit polling showed that 70 percent of voters age 29 and younger supported the ballot measure in Maryland, as did 61 percent of those ages 30 to 44. Eventually, those voters will replace many older ones who now are opposed.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), 65, said he is among those older voters who have had a change of heart on the issue in recent years.
“There’s a risk in any issue that’s groundbreaking, but there’s also a lot of reward,” said Busch, who played a lead role in passing the legislation that was petitioned to the ballot.
Advocates in Maryland also won over about half of African American voters, according to exit polls, despite strong opposition from many African American churches in Prince George’s. Polls before the vote suggested that support among blacks lagged that of whites.
Both high-profile ballot measures offered a window into shifts in religious voting that could shape coming elections in Maryland and beyond.
One is the reemergence of a “religious left” in the African American community, said the Rev. Delman Coates, senior pastor of the 8,000-member Mount Ennon Baptist Church. Among the state’s pastors who publicly supported the same-sex-marriage law, Coates had the largest flock. Alongside NAACP leaders, who embraced gay marriage after Obama did, Coates became a leading face seeking to uphold it. It was a controversial stand that he attributes to his Prince George’s church gaining more than 1,000 members this year.
“For us to win, even by this slim margin, is a major statement that we have come a long way in countering the narrative that African American Christians are fundamentally opposed to the idea of marriage equality,” Coates said.
On the Dream Act, a coalition of more than 800 Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and other faith leaders became a driving voice behind approval of the initiative. A group called Action in Montgomery and affiliated groups in Howard County and Baltimore trained church leaders to be ambassadors for the cause in their congregations.
Legislatures in 13 other states had passed versions of the Dream Act, but Maryland was the first where it was ratified by popular vote.
Its success was also seen as a call for federal action to solve the citizenship status of millions of illegal immigrants, said Jose Aguiluz, 23, an undocumented immigrant in Montgomery County.
“I think it sends a clear message to President Obama and Congress that states are taking the initiative because of the failure of passage of a federal Dream Act,” said Aguiluz, whose parents brought him to the United States from Honduras eight years ago for surgery after a car accident.
Aguiluz recently completed college and was licensed as a registered nurse, but he cannot find a job because he does not have a Social Security number. He said he has applied for an Obama-backed two-year work permit but has not received confirmation that he will be granted one.
“It’s a very important step, but it’s not enough,” he said. Obama “has to grant us a chance to become citizens of the United States.”