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What Made These U.S. Elections Special?

The western states of Colorado and Washington became the first two states ever to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults.
From the first openly gay senator to state votes on marijuana use, the 2012 U.S. elections produced plenty of surprises. Here are seven of the most noteworthy, surprising, or simply curious developments.

GENDER GAP: Men and women had strong preferences for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Exit polls showed men preferred Romney by a margin of 52 to 45 percent. And they showed women preferred Obama by a margin of 55 to 44 percent. The difference was important because women make up about 54 percent of the electorate, giving Obama a clear boost.

WOMEN SENATORS: The 113th Congress will have at least 19 female senators, the most ever in U.S. history. There are currently 17 female U.S. senators, which had also been a record number.

FIRST OPENLY GAY SENATOR: Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, will be the first openly gay senator in U.S. history. Her sexual orientation was largely a nonissue in the race, except when her rival's political director tweeted a video of Baldwin dancing at a gay pride parade. Her rival, Tommy Thompson, later distanced himself from his aide's tweet.

GAY MARRIAGE: The states of Maine and Maryland became the first states to approve same-sex marriage through a popular vote. Six other states and Washington, D.C., permit same-sex unions, but those laws were decided by lawmakers via legislation or court decisions. In Minnesota, voters defeated a constitutional amendment that would have outlawed gay marriage.

RAPE GAFFES: Two candidates for senators lost elections after making statements about rape that many people found offensive. Todd Akin, a Republican candidate from Missouri, claimed that in cases of "legitimate rape" a woman's body has ways to prevent a pregnancy. His use of the words "legitimate rape" hit a sore point with the public because it sounded as if he was accusing many women of alleging rapes that never happened. And Richard Mourdock, a Republican candidate from Indiana, never recovered from claiming that when a woman is impregnated during a rape it's "something God intended."

MARIJUANA: The western states of Colorado and Washington became the first two states ever to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, so it is an open question what the federal government will do about two states legalizing marijuana. The vast majority of arrests for marijuana are made by local officials, meaning that, at least for now, users in these two states should be able to feel safe when smoking. Meanwhile, another state, Massachusetts, legalized the medical use of marijuana. It joins 17 other states and the District of Columbia, which already have laws allowing for the medical use of marijuana.

HOME STATES: Usually in U.S. elections, presidential candidates win the vote in their own home states. But Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, lost in that state as well as the state where he was born, Michigan. Wisconsin, the home state of Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, also went to the Democrats. But Ryan did succeed in keeping his Wisconsin seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

EARLY VOTING: An estimated one-third of Americans voted early in this election, more than ever before. That continues a trend by which many voters prefer to cast their ballots ahead of the official election day of November 6. Proponents of early voting say it particularly helps lower-income voters get to the polls because they often have the most trouble getting time off from work. If so, the early voting trend may have helped propel Obama to victory. Exit polls show 54 percent of voters making less than $100,000 a year voted for Obama, while 54 percent of voters making more than $100,000 voted for Romney.