In an emotional and historic contest, Minnesota voters defeated the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage on Tuesday.
The result struck a blow to same-sex marriage opponents who had succeeded in passing ballot measures in 30 other states. It also opened the way for backers to push for legal same-sex marriages in Minnesota.
Amendment opponents burst into tears and cheered when they heard the outcome early Wednesday morning at the campaign party for Minnesotans United for All Families, the main group that fought against the amendment.
"This is truly a historic night," campaign manager Richard Carlbom told the jubilant crowd. "Minnesota is now the first state in our country that has faced this question and said, 'No.'"
The election result doesn't change Minnesota law, which bans same-sex marriage, but it means the state constitution won't include language defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
But with DFLers taking control of the Legislature, same-sex marriage backers expect to push to change state law and legalize same-sex marriage, precisely what amendment proponents wanted to avoid.
"This conversation does not end tonight," Carlbom said. "It's only just begun. Because we beat this amendment, Minnesota is in a position to ensure that the next generation can participate in the conversation about who should have the freedom to marry."
State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, expressed confidence that it could happen soon.
"I think we just keep on moving forward on it now," Marty said.
State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, a leading opponent of the marriage amendment, took the stage at the St. Paul River Centre with his husband, Richard. Dibble said he and his partner were married in California but are "legal strangers in Minnesota."
Dibble said, "This is about love. I love this man more than I can say, and I'm happier than I can express that I get to spend life with him."
Minnesota for Marriage, the main group supporting the amendment, packed up its party earlier in the night when the race was too close to call. Chairman John Helmberger had vowed to return in the morning when Minneapolis began hand-counting votes in three precincts. "It's that close," Helmberger said before he left.
With more than 90 percent of the state's precincts reporting, just over 47 percent of voters backed the amendment. More than half of voters opposed it and another 1 percent left the question unmarked on the ballot. To win, the amendment needed at least 50 percent of all votes cast in the election.
At the same time, Maine and Maryland became the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. Washington was also voting on a same-sex marriage measure.
The Minnesota results culminated a battle begun in May 2011 when the Legislature put the measure on the ballot.
Results showed a distinct rural-urban split. Support for the amendment was strong in rural areas like Otter Tail County. In the Twin Cities, only Anoka County backed the amendment and opposition was strong in Hennepin, Ramsey Washington and Dakota counties.
Exit polls showed that men tended to favor the amendment and women tended to oppose it. Similarly, voters over 50 were strongly in favor and those under 50 opposed the amendment.
The campaign was the most expensive ballot contest in state history. The main group opposing the amendment, Minnesotans United for All Families, brought in nearly $10 million in cash donations. Minnesota for Marriage, the group leading the fight to pass the amendment, raised more than $5 million.
The issue provoked strong emotions on both sides. Amendment supporters, including the Catholic Church, often referred to the Bible in making the case against same-sex marriage. Amendment supporters said children are best cared for by a mother and a father. They also argued that if same-sex marriage becomes legal, people who oppose it will be branded as bigots.
For gays and lesbians and their supporters, the issue was both emotional and practical. Without the legal rights and privileges of marriage, for example, gays and lesbians can be barred from visiting long-term partners in hospitals.
Amendment opponents say the ability to marry carries a powerful message that gays and lesbians are equal to heterosexuals and deserve the same rights. They also cite religious teachings that encourage compassion and love for others.
The contest came as public opinion shifts in favor of extending marriage to gay and lesbian couples. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found slightly more Americans support legalizing same-sex marriage than oppose it. Nine years ago, 58 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage and only 33 percent supported it.
Before Tuesday's results around the country, six states and Washington, D.C., allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry. Voters in 30 states have placed bans on same-sex marriage in their state constitutions, although the average margin of victory for ballot questions has narrowed in recent years.
The coalition behind the constitutional amendment conceded Wednesday morning.
Just shy of 48 percent of voters backed the amendment. It needed at least 50 percent of all votes cast to win.
Chuck Darrell of Minnesota for Marriage says his group was swimming against a national tide of people and resources fighting the amendment.
"I don't think it's any rocket science. We ran a strong campaign, but just came up short. We're going to stay vigilant to make sure any lawsuit or legislative efforts to redefine marriage -- that we fight them. We're going to go forward and make our plans to revive the culture of marriage here in Minnesota," he said.
Darrell says he expects the new DFL-controlled Legislature to try to legalize same-sex marriage in the upcoming session.