Reporting from Portland, Maine - Maine's voters flocked to the polls on a warm and sunny election day to decide whether to repeal a state law permitting same-sex marriage.
With polls showing a closely divided electorate, advocates on both sides of the issue predicted it would be a long night before results were known in the latest battle over whether to let couples marry regardless of gender.
But gay-rights supporters were hopeful when state officials reported this afternoon that voter turnout appeared unusually heavy for an off-year election, with no statewide or national candidates on the ballot.
"That's great for us," said Mark Sullivan, spokesman for No on 1/Protect Maine Equality, the coalition that is seeking to allow same-sex partners to marry. "It means we succeeded in reaching younger people and others who don't always vote."
Marc Mutty, chairman of Stand for Marriage Maine, which led the effort to repeal the statute, conceded that "conventional wisdom is a light turnout is good for us." But, he added, "We still think it's promising."
The anti-gay-marriage group has focused on attracting the votes of Catholics and members of evangelical churches in the state's less-affluent northern and western regions. Supporters of the law have focused on Maine's southern towns and suburbs, where political attitudes are more liberal.
The referendum has attracted national attention because Maine may be the first state to have its voters support same-sex marriage. The state is proud of its quirky politics and live-and-let-live attitudes.
Voters in about 30 states have rejected gay marriage. Same-sex unions are recognized in five states -- Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont -- as a result of judicial rulings or legislative action.
One other state is considering a related issue this year. Voters in Washington will decide whether to extend the same legal rights to registered domestic partners that married couples enjoy.
Amy Fried, a political scientist at the University of Maine in Orono, said the state Legislature almost certainly would pass another gay marriage law if voters reject the statute. If the law is upheld, she added, gay activists around the country will look for lessons in what worked and why.
"But there are some unique characteristics in Maine," Fried said. "It's a fairly secular state, with strong libertarian leanings even among conservatives. And Mainers really despise negative campaigning. That doesn't necessarily translate from one state to another."
Rea Carey, executive director of the nonprofit National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said a vote to uphold the law in Maine would bolster efforts to pass similar laws in New York, New Jersey and other states.
"It will be the first time that we have won on marriage equality, and that will not go unnoticed," she said.
Maine's law will go into effect in 30 to 60 days if voters approve. Under the statute, no religious institution or member of the clergy would be required to perform or recognize a same-sex marriage.
Voters have been bombarded for weeks with TV ads, mailings, phone calls, canvassers and get-out-the-vote efforts, and both sides deployed thousands of volunteers today. Yard signs lined some roads, poking out of a blanket of wildly hued autumn leaves.
California's bitter fight last year over Proposition 8, which passed a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage, set the stage for the high stakes rematch here.
Gay-rights activists organized a campaign to change the law last spring. Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, initially refused to support the proposal, but he signed it in May after it passed the Legislature.
Opponents immediately began collecting signatures to call a ballot initiative to repeal the law before it could go into effect.
Since then, both sides have relied heavily on activists, money and other resources from out of state. Supporters of gay marriage have raised about $4 million, while the repeal groups have raised $2.6 million.
California's shadow looms large over Maine in several ways. Stand for Marriage Maine hired the same consulting firm that ran the Proposition 8 campaign against same-sex marriage, Schubert Flint Public Affairs, based in Sacramento, to supervise strategy and advertising.
Using ads similar to those aired last year in California, the group warned in a spot broadcast Monday night: "Don't be fooled. Gay marriage will be taught in Maine schools" if the law is not repealed.
Baldacci and state education officials have repeatedly insisted that nothing in the new law would require teachers to discuss marriage in schools.