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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 being foisted on states by judges or lawmakers over the will of the public.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.Maine’s secretary of state, Matthew Dunlap, said turnout seemed higher than expected for an off-year election and voter interest appeared intense. Even before Tuesday, more than 100,000 people — out of about 1 million registered voters — had voted by absentee ballot or early voting.

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