Divisive Social Issues Further Split Red and Blue States

Nowhere has the red/blue divide between the states been more apparent than on contentious social issues such as gun control, abortion, gay marriage, and immigration.

With 37 states  under one-party control, lawmakers responded aggressively to national events and political developments in Washington.

After the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Democratic states such as New York, Connecticut and Maryland passed sweeping new gun laws. “Nothing focuses your attention like 20 babies being killed,” said Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his state.

Republican-dominated states, meanwhile, looked to block federal laws and loosened numerous restrictions on guns and ammunition.

Arkansas and North Dakota enacted the strictest limits on abortion (at 12 weeks and six weeks from conception, respectively), in laws that may test Roe v. Wade. In 2014, North Dakota voters will consider a measure that would enshrine in state law the idea that life begins at conception, effectively outlawing abortion. But New York, Washington and California looked to expand abortion access, particularly in the new health insurance exchanges that will launch in October as part of the Affordable Care Act.

As the U.S. Supreme Court weighed two landmark same-sex marriage cases, three more states voted to legalize gay marriage: Rhode Island, Minnesota and Delaware. Colorado also approved civil unions. Meanwhile, 36 states still have bans in place, which is unlikely to change anytime soon because most are cemented into state constitutions.  As a backdrop, a Pew Research Center survey said 72 percent of Americans think legalization of gay marriage is inevitable.

Stateline's Legislative Review looks at policy and politics in the states since legislatures began their work in January. The five-part series will include analytical articles, infographics and interactives.

States also charted a new path on immigration, even as Congress debated a comprehensive national measure.  For years states such as Arizona and Alabama have been approving measures to restrict immigration. But this year the pendulum swung in the other direction as several states moved to issue driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally and to offer them in-state tuition at colleges. At the same time,  states along the border pressed for more security.

What explains the frenzy of activity at the state level?

“We are stalemated at the federal level,” said Tom Gais, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government. “But there's more political decisiveness around these social issues at the state level. What's really new is the direction it's going – and the political decisiveness.”