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Ballot measures: What message did America send on Election Day? (+video)

American voters rejected ballot measures at a higher rate than usual – suggesting voter fatigue – but two big liberal social issues - legalizing marijuana and same-sex marriage - made historic headway.

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Recreational marijuana's track record was not so extensive, though a California ballot initiative lost in 2010. Tuesday, a legal marijuana measure passed in Colorado and appeared set to pass in Washington State, too. A third was rejected in Oregon.

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The reasons for the shift on same-sex marriage could be twofold, says Professor Pitney. For one, he says, a majority of voters don't see the activity as hurting anyone. “In same-sex marriage, no one gets hurt – and even the strongest opponents admit that whatever impacts may be indirect,” says Pitney.

He suggests that attitudes on marijuana have likewise shifted.

“When I was growing up in the '60s and '70s, the older generation treated marijuana use with great fear and suspicion, equating it with harder drugs," he says. "Now, I am the older generation, remembering that in certain days in college, you could get high by second-hand smoke just by breathing heavily. For my students, it’s a head scratcher that people ever thought same-sex marriage was a big deal … and likewise with marijuana.”

Second, he says, public opinions about a once-taboo activity are changing as familiarity grows.

He surmises President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage this year was not necessarily the tipping point of acceptance but was following changes already in play. Now, as advocates point out, there is more acceptance because more people see gay couples in situations that have normalized the relationships.

USC's Professor Matsusaka notes that support for marijuana and same-sex marriage is not just about young people. Indeed, a July study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found support for gay marriage rising across all generations.

“It’s very clear to me that public opinion has just changed on both marijuana and same-sex marriage … it’s not generational at all,” he says. “People of all ages have just changed their minds.”

That evolution at the ballot box, others say, is merely the sign of a shift that has already happened in society – it is not a leading indicator.

“The impact of the changes produced at the ballot box are dwarfed by the impacts on those same issues by activist judges, legislatures, and even the president,” says Michael Shires, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. “The initiatives are more of an echo of those broader social changes rather than the primary groundswell of liberalism. Even in the case of recreational marijuana, most states have reduced the penalties associated with recreational use to the point that it is essentially decriminalized.”

But other social issues that don't fit these criteria have not fared as well, says Pitney. For instance, voters in Massachusetts rejected the Death With Dignity Act, leaving Oregon and Washington as the only states that allow physician-assisted suicide. And California voted to keep the death penalty.

“Californians rejected a move to scrap the death penalty," Pitney says. "As a younger generation comes of age, certain social attitudes are changing, but some attitudes are changing more than others.”

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