By Elizabeth Weise, Dennis Cauchon and William M. Welch, USA TODAY
The election produced ground-breaking steps on a pair of social issues, as voters endorsed same-sex marriage in four states and legalization of marijuana in two.
"Think of this as the Will and Gracification of America," Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, says of the gay marriage vote. "Programs like Will and Grace and Glee are having a similar effect as the Cosby Show did back in the 1980s."
Future implications for the nation - in politics and policy - could prove dramatic.
Gay marriage, once so controversial that opponents used the issue to demonize liberal backers, won victories in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment banning gay unions.
Schnur says polls show the young are far more liberal about gay marriage than those over 50, and far more likely to know openly gay people.
Colorado and Washington approved legalizing marijuana for recreational use, defying a federal prohibition since the 1930s.
Just two years ago, California rejected marijuana legalization, and many states have acted to ban gay marriage in the past.
Approval of same-sex marriage and recreational use of marijuana came as a rebuke to longstanding federal policies - the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and federal drug policies against marijuana. Ballot measures that had failed for years on same-sex marriage and drug decriminalization this time won approval.
Gay marriage supporters won in all four states where it was up for a vote. Two states, Washington and Colorado, legalized the recreational use of marijuana while Oregon defeated it. Massachusetts approved marijuana for medical reasons, while Arkansas rejected it.
"This represents a big change in American society," says Jennie Bowser, a ballot issues expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Maine, Maryland and Washington legalized same-sex marriages. Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment banning them, though gay marriage remains illegal there. The votes ended a 14-year, 32-state losing streak when the issue was put to voters instead of being decided by courts or legislatures and signal what some analysts call a cultural shift.
Public opinion is rapidly changing on gay marriage, heavily influenced by younger voters, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. Polls have found "a huge differential on this issue in terms of age." Voters over 50 are most opposed and voters 18 to 29 are most supportive of same-sex marriage. "The generational divide is stark,'' he said.
Younger people are more likely than their elders to know others who are openly gay or in a same-sex relationship and are more accepting of it, he said.
While demographics played a part in Tuesday's outcomes, outreach played a key role, said Brian Silva, executive director of Marriage Equality USA in New York City. "When we introduce ourselves and show how boring and normal we are, just like every other American family, people respond."
Demographics aren't all one way, said Chuck Darrell of Minnesota for Marriage, the group that sought to add a ban on gay marriage to the state constitution. While younger people may be more positive about same-sex marriage, that changes as they age, he said. "When the younger generation has children, the number supporting same-sex marriage drops quite a bit," he said.
Couples in Maine could be able to marry no later than Jan. 4, possibly by Dec. 6 in Washington and after Jan. 1 in Maryland. Gay marriage is currently legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia.
The decision by voters in Colorado and Washington to legalize the recreational use of marijuana - taking consumption of the drug well beyond its use for medicinal purposes that is legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia - overturned decades of marijuana prohibitions.
The Justice Department, which still regards marijuana as an illegal drug in the same class as heroin and LSD, has declined to say how it would respond if the measures were approved.
Voters' decision to legalize marijuana could cause wide-reaching implications for employers unsure what it means for their hiring and firing practices. "There are no answers, only questions," said Carl Maxey of Maxey Truck & Trailer Equipment in Fort Collins, Colo., which drug-tests prospective employees and any worker involved in a workplace accident. "It is a very awkward position to put employers in right now."
The Colorado law does not require employers to permit the use of marijuana in the workplace, but it's unclear whether an employer can restrict the use by an employee in non-work hours. "It's virtually impossible to prove ... unless they see someone lighting a doobie at work," said Mountain States Employers Council staff attorney Curtis Graves.
It's possible for a state to legalize something the federal government deems illegal, said Jonathan Caulkins, a specialist in drug policy at Carnegie Mellon Heinz College in Pittsburgh. New York legalized alcohol in 1923 during Prohibition.
American attitudes about marijuana use have been steadily changing. In 2011 a record 50% of Americans told Gallup pollsters that use of marijuana should be made legal, up from 46% in 2010.
There's also a growing realization that the war on drugs launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971 has been "a destructive failure," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a national group based in Baltimore that was involved in both the Colorado and Washington campaigns.
He likens the shift to America's alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. "It was the states that began to push back, one-by-one, until the feds finally got the message."
Contributing: Pat Ferrier, The (Fort Collins) Coloradoan, Associated Press