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Washington in the 1990s restricted the practice by state government. That could soon change, depending on the results of an upcoming referendum.
Washington state lawmakers back in April, on the final day of the legislative session, approved a measure that would rework state law to explicitly allow the state government to adopt affirmative action policies for hiring, contracting and at public universities and colleges.
But now voters will get a chance to uphold or reject that move. The Washington Secretary of State’s office this week said a referendum had qualified for the November ballot that will ask voters to weigh in on the changes that the Legislature passed.
Washington is among eight states that since the mid-1990s have restricted affirmative action—a term that generally refers to taking into account that a person or group has historically faced discrimination when making hiring or academic admissions decisions.
Voters in Washington in 1998 established a roadblock to this practice with the approval of Initiative 200, which prohibited the state from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on race, gender, color, ethnicity, or national origin.
The prohibition covers the state itself, but also cities, counties, academic institutions and other government entities.
Beginning last year, activists in the state began building support for what’s known as Initiative 1000, which stipulates that the state is not barred from “remedying discrimination against, or underrepresentation of, disadvantaged groups.”
It also says that the state is not prohibited from implementing affirmative action laws or policies.
But any affirmative action practices, the initiative says, can’t depend on quotas and can’t result in “preferential treatment,” which it defines as using race, gender or other specified traits as the “sole qualifying factor,” to select a lesser qualified candidate over a more qualified one.
Eventually, backers of the initiative gathered around 350,000 to 400,000 signatures in support of it—enough so that the proposal could go before the Legislature for consideration.
In Washington, citizens can gather signatures to bring initiatives to the voters or can choose to hand a proposal off to the Legislature. If state lawmakers adopt the proposal without making changes, it becomes law without the governor’s signature.
In this case, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is currently also vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, has voiced support for Initiative 1000.
On April 28, both chambers in the Democratic-controlled state Legislature approved the measure. It passed 56-42 in the House and 26-22 in the Senate, with no Republican support.
Opponents responded by filing Referendum 88, collecting 213,268 signatures in its favor. The referendum asks voters to decide on whether Initiative 1000 should go into effect. For now, the initiative is suspended from going into law, pending the outcome of the election.
“I doubt seriously that there’s going to be a reversal,” Jesse Wineberry, a former state lawmaker who has helped lead the Initiative 1000 campaign, said during a phone interview.
Still, he said proponents of the measure are mounting a campaign to elicit voter support for it. Wineberry pointed out that they’d run television advertisements in Washington state during the Democratic primary presidential debates on CNN.
He also said he would meet Thursday evening with Democrats in Pierce County who had endorsed reinstating affirmative action and are now gearing up for door-to-door outreach. Pierce County is home to Tacoma and one of the more heavily populated counties in the state.
The political committee backing the initiative had piled up $1.3 million in debt through the end of June. But Wineberry brushed aside concerns this could inhibit its efforts. “We’ll be funding all of our other activities while paying the debt at the same time,” he said.
The committee’s treasurer said Thursday that he did not have the current debt figure immediately available but that the group’s latest financial filing was due Monday.
Let People Vote, the committee that pushed for Referendum 88, did not respond to emailed requests for comment. And attempts by phone and email to reach Kan Qiu, who is listed as the group’s treasurer on filings with the state, were also unsuccessful.
Linda Yang, who leads Washington Asians For Equality, has said in recent statements that Referendum 88 marked the first time in Washington state that Asian Americans “led the pack” sending a referendum to the ballot.
She also said that critics have wrongly tried to portray the Referendum 88 campaign as “a group of Asian Americans worried about losing spots” at the University of Washington.
“This is clearly about a much larger issue,” she added. “This is about a basic fundamental American value: Individual rights for every person! Race has no place in American life or law.”
Let People Vote has recorded at least $971,687 in cash contributions.
Opposition against Initiative 1000 within the local Asian American community is by no means monolithic.
Groups that have registered support for the measure include the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment, the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of Washington and Asian Counseling and Referral Service.
"We feel that affirmative action is the wrong target to go after,” Joseph Shoji Lachman, a civic-engagement program manager for Asian Counseling and Referral Service said last month, according to The Seattle Times. “Overall, Asian Americans broadly support affirmative action and other holistic admissions.”
A website promoting Referendum 88 says Initiative 1000 “can be summed up in one sentence: it would abolish the standard of equality for all, regardless of race, as required by I-200, and replace it with a system that uses different rules for people of different races.”
Asked about that characterization, Wineberry replied: “I have no idea what they’re talking about.” He says the initiative aligns with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, which upheld a university admissions program that took race into account.
“Where’s the rule in I-1000 that applies to different races?” Wineberry added.
Something that’s been overlooked about the measure, in his view, is that it extends existing protections against discrimination and preferential treatment to also cover age. The expanded language also covers sexual orientation, disabilities and veteran or military status.
Provisions in the initiative that prevent race, gender and other specified traits from being used as the only criteria for hiring or academic admissions decisions are key, according to Wineberry.
“You cannot use race as a sole factor, ever,” he said. But the difference from current law, he added, is “you can look at the whole person and no longer are you going to be restricted” entirely from considering race, gender or the other categories outlined in the initiative.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.