8 things to know about Referendum 88

A person with a ballot. (Photo by King County Elections via Flickr.)

Twenty years after Washington voters abolished affirmative action, voters will decide whether to put another form of it into effect.

Referendum 88 has wide-reaching implications, not only for Washington’s education system, but also for how the state hires workers and decides who gets lucrative business contracts.

Here are eight things you need to know about Referendum 88 ahead of Nov. 5.

What does your vote mean?

Referendum 88 asks voters whether to approve the Washington state legislature’s passage of Initiative 1000, which curtails the state’s 1998 ban on preferential treatment based on race or gender.

While the use of quotas or preferential treatment for less-qualified candidates based solely on their race or sex would continue to be banned, the initiative would allow state agencies to consider “discrimination against, or underrepresentation of, disadvantaged groups,” including women, people of color and veterans of the military.

A vote of approval would affirm the new law.  A vote of rejection would keep the system the way it has been since 1998.

It’s not unheard of for opponents of newly signed laws to gather signatures to force those laws to face a public vote. In 2012, petitioners put Referendum 74 on the ballot to challenge the state legislature’s legalization of same sex marriage. In November that year, voters passed Referendum 74 and affirmed same sex marriage, with a vote of 54% to 46%. (Same sex marriage was legalized nationwide by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling three years later.)

Who are the players in this debate?

Initiative 1000  was pushed by former state lawmaker Jesse Wineberry and Nat Jackson, who was in Gov. Dan Evans’ cabinet when affirmative action was first enacted decades ago. As the Seattle Globalist reported in April, Jackson, who has had a colorful career as an activist and jump rope champion, recalled he would find Wineberry working into the wee hours of the morning to make his initiative campaign viable.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee supports approval, as do former Govs. Christine Gregoire (D), Gary Locke (D), and Evans, a Republican. Nearly 400,000 voters petitioned lawmakers to support the initiative, according to the state voters’ pamphlet.

Bellevue resident Kan Qiu, chairman of a group called the American Coalition for Equality, filed the referendum to put I-1000 on the ballot shortly after the legislature passed it. His group opposes Referendum 88, as does Washington Asians for Equality and radio broadcaster and former candidate for governor John Carlson.

When the legislature was considering I-1000, opponents included conservative activist Tim Eyman and Ward Connerly, who pushed for California’s ban on affirmative action.

What are the arguments for and against I-1000?

Qiu said he sees I-1000 as alienating part of the electorate.

“Initiative 1000 is allowing government to draw a race line again among its people and that’s divisive and we cannot follow that,” he told The Seattle Globalist in the spring.

Opponents of Initiative 1000 listed several other arguments against the initiative in the state voters’ pamphlet, saying that the law would allow “government-sponsored discrimination,” would damage progress already made on diversity, and that it “lacks accountability.”

However proponents of affirmative action say it would increase inclusion in higher education, where demographics do not match the demographics of the state.

“We believe that when you increase diversity in our colleges and universities, those people graduate and create a more diverse workforce,” Wineberry told The Seattle Globalist.

“A more diverse workforce enables us to be more competitive with other states and enables America to be more competitive with other countries.”

Supporters also point out in the state’s voter pamphlet that while the law would allow outreach and recruiting to veterans, women and minorities, the preferential hiring of unqualified candidates and quotas would still be prohibited.

How did affirmative action get on the November statewide ballot?

Last summer, Wineberry, Jackson and other proponents of affirmative action collected 387,000 signatures to bring I-1000 to the state Legislature. Lawmakers had the option to pass the initiative as written, pass a revised version and send the issue to the ballot, or do nothing and put the initiative to the November election.

The state House first passed I-1000 with just a few hours left in the legislative session that closed at midnight on the night of April 28 by a vote of 56-42. All but one Democrat voted for it and Republicans were consolidated in their opposition. Just minutes later, the state Senate did the same with just one Democrat standing against the initiative.

Meanwhile, opponents located in the gallery loudly excoriated legislators after the vote totals were displayed, forcing Lt. Gov Cyrus Habib, who presides over the chamber, to order them removed, according to the Associated Press. They then marched around the Capitol yelling, “Vote them out.”

After Inslee signed the bill, making it law, Qiu and other opponents led a referendum effort to put affirmative action back into the hands of voters. They met the 90 day deadline to get 130,000 signatures from registered voters.

Why doesn’t Washington have affirmative action?

In 1998, more than 58 percent of voters approved Initiative 200, which banned the use of affirmative action in public employment, education and contracting. The initiative was sponsored by Scott Smith and Tim Eyman, and modeled after California’s anti-affirmative action ballot measure spearheaded by Ward Connerly.

Before the passage of I-200, Washington law allowed affirmative action subject to constitutional limits.

How does Washington compare to other states on affirmative action?

Since many states define the practice differently, broadly speaking, affirmative action are steps taken by schools and employers to increase the proportions of historically marginalized groups in their institutions.

Washington was the third state to ban affirmative action when it did so in 1998. The eight other states to have banned the practice are, in chronological order, California, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire and Oklahoma. The Texas ban, however, was reversed in 2003 by the United States Supreme Court.

The other states do not explicitly ban affirmative action, and 28 states require affirmative action plans in public employment or apprenticeships.

How has diversity in state contracts and higher education fared since the state banned affirmative action?

Opponents of I-1000/R88 point out that today, there is a higher percentage of underrepresented minorities at universities and colleges throughout the state than there were before affirmative action was banned.

But the Chronicle of Higher Education reported earlier this year that while that is true, the percentage still lags behind the change in demographics of the state’s population as a whole. The publication analyzed enrollment at the University of Washington.

“After an initial tumble, from 10 percent to 6.6 percent of the first-time, first-year undergraduate population, the percentage of underrepresented minority students at the flagship gradually climbed, to 16.1 percent in 2017,” the publication reported. “Still, the numbers haven’t kept up with the increasing proportion of minority residents across the state, which has risen from 17.1 percent to 25.8 percent of the total population.”

This year, the University of Washington’s Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity reported that the undergraduate population in 2019-20 is 36.9% Caucasian, 22.5% Asian, 15.5% International, 8.9% Latino/Hispanic, 6.4% Southeast Asian, 4.2% African American, 1.8% Filipino, 1.4% Not Indicated, 1.2% Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 1.2% American Indian/Alaska Native.

In state contracts, Washington’s Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises reports that there has been a decrease in state contracts given to women or minority-owned businesses since 1998.

According to the agency’s numbers, in 2017, less than 3% of state agency and educational institution dollars were spent with women or minority-owned businesses, down from the high-water mark of 13.3% in 1998. Since the passage of Initiative-200, 3.5% of state contract money has been spent with such businesses overall.

The Washington Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises reported that in 1998, 13.3 percent of state and education institution dollars were spent with women or minority-owned businesses. That significantly decreased after the passage of I-200, with 3.5 percent of state contract money has been spent with such businesses overall.

When are ballots due?

Ballots for the general election were mailed out Oct. 16 and drop boxes opened the next day. They won’t close until 8 p.m. on Nov. 5.

Additional reporting by Venice Buhain.