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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

Voters narrowly rejecting affirmative action change

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 5, 2019

Affirmative action programs have been illegal in Washington for 21 years. Supporters and opponents will have to wait a few more days to learn whether that will change.

Washington voters were narrowly rejecting a move by the Legislature to allow some affirmative action programs as long as they aren’t the sole factor in awarding public jobs, contracts or college slots to applicants based on race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, disability or veterans status.

While voters in Spokane and most other counties were rejecting the change by varying margins, heavy support in King County was keeping the proposal within a percentage point or two in the Tuesday night count.

“We knew it was going to be a close one,” said April Sims, co-chairwoman of the Washington Fairness Coalition. “If we continue to carry King County, that bodes really well.”

The ballot measure was the result of two different petition drives and a partisan vote in the closing days of the 2019 legislative session.

Since 1998, state law has banned most forms of affirmative action in state and local government employment, contracting and programs.

Last year, civil rights activists and other groups gathered signatures on Initiative 1000, which would allow affirmative action for different racial and ethnic groups, as well as for sex, gender orientation and veteran status, provided that wasn’t the sole reason for that decision. But it would ban “preferential treatment” – awarding jobs, contracts or programs just for status.

I-1000 was an initiative to the Legislature, which had the option of passing it into law or sending it to the ballot. In the closing hours of the final day, with opponents chanting outside the chambers they would vote them out, lawmakers passed it on a mostly party-line vote.

Opponents almost immediately filed Referendum 88 and in three months collected the necessary signatures, blocking it from taking effect until voters had a chance to weigh in.

Because it was a referendum on an approved law, Referendum 88 set up a somewhat confusing option. People who signed I-1000 or supported affirmative action were asked to vote “approved,” while those who signed Referendum 88 or wanted the law off the books were asked to vote “rejected.”

The campaign organization that sponsored the I-1000 petition drive had the support of three former governors – Republican Dan Evans and Democrats Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire – as well as current Gov. Jay Inslee.

But the campaign ran into controversy for not paying some $1 million owed to companies that hire signature gatherers, and a separate campaign organization sprung up in an effort to sidestep the controversy. It received $550,000 from Group Health Community Foundation, $115,000 from the Service Employees International Union Initiative fund and $94,000 from ACLU of Washington.

The Referendum 88 campaign relied heavily on donations from the Chinese American community. In the closing days, they received some financial help from longtime conservative sources, including $50,000 from developer Kemper Freeman and $20,000 from former cellular phone executive Bruce McCaw.

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