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Isaac Liljegren, 6, drops the ballot of his dad Eric Liljegren, left, and the ballot of his other dad Scott Shiebler, right, into a ballot drop box outside the King County Administration Building in Seattle.

Joshua Trujillo/The Associated Press

Voters appeared set to make social history in the United States, as legalized marijuana and gay marriage won approval in several states.

Neither proposition had ever before found favour in a state-wide vote.

With more than three fourths the votes counted, Colorado voters supported an end to the illegality of pot by 53 per cent, while the margin in favour of legal marijuana was even higher in the state of Washington at 55 per cent as of Wednesday morning.

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In Maryland, meanwhile, a measure to permit same-sex couples to marry was winning 52-per-cent support with more than 90 per cent of the vote counted, and in Maine, the margin was 53-47 per cent in favour, with well over half the state's precincts reporting. Same-sex marriage was also leading in Washington at 52 per cent, with 51 per cent of the precincts reporting.

Activists had been hoping for historic breakthroughs on both questions. The two hot-button issues were perhaps the most hard-fought and high-profile among scores of matters put to voters in 38 states, as part of the country's long embrace of citizen-sponsored, ballot initiatives.

A same-sex marriage victory in any state would end one of the grimmest losing streaks in U.S. political history, with losses in every one of the 32 states that have previously put the controversial question to a vote.

But this time, bolstered by huge cash donations from celebrities and liberal-leaning software moguls, plus narrow leads in the polls, those in favour were hopeful of making history.

As for marijuana, although many states allow medicinal use of cannabis, voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington were asked to approve legalization of the drug for any purpose. A 'yes' vote in any state would also be a first for a country that has waged a relentless, costly war on drugs for years. Oregon voters, however, turned their backs on the proposal.

The proposed measure in Washington was particularly radical, calling for the public sale of marijuana at government outlets, regulated and taxed by the state.

But same-sex marriage and legal pot were far from the only critical policy decisions facing voters.

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California, traditionally the state with the largest number of voter initiatives, asked citizens to abolish the death penalty and approve a higher sales tax, plus higher taxes on the wealthy, to aid its beleaguered bottom line. Residents voted to keep the death penalty, while the tax proposition was winning 54 percent to 46 percent, with 93 percent of ballots counted, according to the Associated Press.

Massachusetts had a "die with dignity" measure on the ballot. Passage would give terminally ill patients there the same access to physician-assisted deaths as residents of Oregon and Washington. However, with 93 per cent of the ballots counted, those against the proposition were ahead by 51-49 per cent.

Perhaps, the strangest vote of all, however, took place in Alabama, where voters were asked to remove segregationist language from the state constitution, ending references to separate 'white' and 'black' schools.

In a bizarre twist, African-American educators urged Alabama voters to keep the racist clause intact, while conservatives called on supporters to vote it down.

African-Americans argued the amendment retained other clauses that provide no guarantee to taxpayer-funded public education in Alabama. Their opposition prompted some conservatives to support the move on the grounds that "the other side" was against it.

In the end, Alabamans voted down the change.

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