Voting on Preferences


The campaign to end racial preferences has moved to Washington state, where voters in November will pull the lever on an initiative that would abolish the government's system of race- and gender-based preferences.

The Washington Civil Rights Initiative (I-200) wended its way to Washington via California, where the similarly worded Proposition 209 passed in 1996, and Houston, where voters rejected an anti-preference initiative by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent last November.

Few California exports are popular in the Evergreen State, but polls indicate that Washingtonians agree with Californians that the government should not play favorites based on race. A July Seattle Times poll found that when Washington voters are read the language they will confront on election day–"The state shall not discriminate against–or grant preferential treatment to–any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting"–64 percent give the initiative thumbs up. But when voters are told the initiative would wipe out "affirmative action"–a claim disputed by I-200 backers–support for the initiative drops to 49 percent.

Pre-election polling on California's Prop. 209 uncovered similar semantically inspired shifts. The deceptive wording of the Houston ballot, which said the initiative would end "affirmative action" rather than "preferences," is believed to have caused its narrow defeat. (In June, a federal judge in Texas found the ballot language misleading and invalidated the election; the initiative may be put before Houston voters again in 1999.)

Not surprisingly, the Washington initiative's foes claim I-200 will doom all affirmative action. For help, they are counting on a sympathetic Seattle press and a popular and supportive governor, along with deep-pocketed corporations, labor unions, and national civil rights groups.

For their part, I-200 proponents remain confident. "We will prevail by telling the truth," says I-200 Chairman John Carlson, "because a majority of people believes that governments shouldn't discriminate."