In a triple setback for conservatives, South Dakota rejected a law that would have banned virtually all abortions, Arizona became the first state to defeat an amendment to ban gay marriage and Missouri approved a measure backing stem cell research.
Nationwide, a total of 205 measures were on the ballots Tuesday in 37 states, but none had riveted political activists across the country like the South Dakota measure. Passed overwhelmingly by the legislature earlier this year, it would have been the toughest abortion law in the nation, allowing the procedure only to save a pregnant woman's life.
Many voters said they viewed the measure — which lost by a 55-45 margin — as too intrusive, using language that failed to guarantee the rights of victims of rape and incest.
"I still feel like there is a gray area in that particular matter," said Lance Weber, 49, of Sturgis, S.D. "I feel there needs to be some exceptions."
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Arizona bucked a strong national trend by refusing to change its constitution to define marriage as a one-man, one-woman institution. The measure also would have forbidden civil unions and domestic partnerships.
"We knew all along that once voters were informed about the true impact ... they would oppose this hurtful initiative," said Steve May, treasurer for Arizona Together, which organized opposition to the measure. "They made the right decision."
A total of eight states voted on amendments to ban gay marriage: Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin approved them. Similar amendments have passed previously in all 20 states to consider them.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, noted that the bans that succeeded won by much narrower margins, on average, than in the past.
He said it was a sign that "fear-mongering around same-sex marriage is fizzling out."
Conservatives had hoped the same-sex marriage bans might increase turnout for Republicans, though the GOP had a rough night. Democrats had looked for a boost from low-income voters turning out on behalf of measures to raise the state minimum wage in six states. The wage hikes passed in Arizona, Colorado. Missouri, Montana, Ohio and Nevada.
The Missouri stem cell measure passed by a narrow margin. It had become a key factor in the state's crucial Senate race, won by Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill, who supported it, over incumbent Republican Jim Talent, who opposed it.
In Michigan, voters took a swipe at affirmative action, deciding that race and gender should not be factors in deciding who gets into public universities or who gets hired for government work.
Arizona voters faced the most ballot measures — 19. They approved four that arose out of frustration over the influx of illegal immigrants: One measure makes English the state's official language, while another expands the list of government benefits denied to illegal immigrants.
Voters weren't keen about another, more quirky Arizona measure: They defeated a proposal that would have awarded $1 million to a randomly selected voter in each general election.
In Ohio and Arizona, anti-smoking activists won showdowns with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Voters in each state approved a tough ban on smoking in public places and rejected rival, Reynolds-backed measures that would have exempted bars. Voters in Arizona and South Dakota approved increases in tobacco taxes, while similar proposals were voted down in Missouri and California.
Nevada and Colorado voters rejected measures that would have legalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by anyone 21 and older. South Dakotans voted down a proposal that would have allowed marijuana use for some medical purposes. A winning measure in Rhode Island will restore voting rights to felons on probation and parole.
Elsewhere, land use was a hot issue, part of a backlash against a 2005 Supreme Court ruling allowing the city of New London, Conn., to buy up homes to make way for a private commercial development.
Nine states approved eminent-domain measures barring the government from taking private property for a private use, while California rejected the idea. Arizona's winning measure went beyond the others, requiring state and local authorities to compensate property owners if land-use regulations lowered the value of their property: Idaho rejected a similar measure.
South Dakota voters defeated a measure that would have made their state the first to strip immunity from judges, exposing them to the possibility of lawsuits. In Maine, Nebraska and Oregon, voters defeated measures that would cap increases in state spending.
Pennsylvania voters gave the state the go-ahead to borrow $20 million so that nearly 33,000 veterans in the state who participated in the Persian Gulf War could collect one-time payments up to $525.