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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington voters narrowly reject effort to bring back affirmative action

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Opponents of affirmative action rallied in the state Capitol in April after majority Democrats passed Initiative 1000. In a November referendum vote, Washington voters narrowly rejected the new law.

Washington voters have said “no” to an effort to restore affirmative action in the state.

The Associated Press declared Referendum 88 rejected late Tuesday afternoon, one week after Election Day. Soon after, the pro-affirmative action Washington Fairness Coalition sent out a concession statement.

“[I]t's clear that many Washingtonians want a better, more fair and equitable state with opportunities for all,” the statement said. “[The campaign] ignited important conversations about how structural racism and sexism continue to serve as barriers to access to opportunity in our state."

The statement said the work of the coalition would continue.

In a separate statement, the anti-affirmative action Let People Vote/Reject Referendum 88 campaign declared victory and noted that it had prevailed in 35 of Washington’s 39 counties.

“We are pleased that voters of Washington State saw through the misleading ballot title and voted to re-affirm the principle of Equality for All,” said the campaign’s Linda Yang. “Our group will continue to work to address economic and racial disparities in all aspects of government and society.”

As of 5:30 Tuesday afternoon, the vote to reject Referendum 88 vote was ahead by about 15,000 votes, or less than one percent, with about 50,000 ballots yet to be counted, according to the Washington Secretary of State’s election results web page.

The result of the vote is that Washington’s new affirmative action law – which began as an initiative to the Legislature -- won’t take effect. Majority Democrats passed that measure, Initiative 1000, in late April at the end of the legislative session.

Opponents immediate filed Referendum 88 to repeal the law and collected enough signatures over the summer to qualify it for the November ballot.

The new law would once again have allowed affirmative action policies in public employment, contracting and education.

In 1998, by a vote of 58 percent, Washington voters passed I-200 which created a de facto ban on affirmative action.

I-1000 sought to restore affirmative action in Washington without the use of quotas or preferential treatment, defined in the measure as using criteria like race or gender as the “sole qualifying factor to select a lesser qualified candidate over a more qualified candidate.”

The law also called for non-quota-based “participation goals” and “outreach efforts” to remedy discrimination against “disadvantaged groups,” defined as groups that had been identified through disparity studies or court cases.

A coalition of opponents, led by first-generation Chinese Americans, argued the law would lead to “racial preferences” and unfairly penalize Asian students trying to get into college.

On Tuesday, not everyone was ready to concede the race. Former Democratic state Rep. Jesse Wineberry, who co-chaired the I-1000 campaign, said he was counting on a “miracle.”

“The beautiful story of I-1000 is that it’s been a journey of miracles, it’s been a campaign of miracles,” Wineberry said.

But Wineberry was also looking to the future. He said affirmative action supporters are already preparing another initiative for 2020. Unlike Initiative 1000, Wineberry said this one would be an initiative directly to the people.

“We obviously are confident because of this election that we will win should there not be a victory waiting for us in 2019,” Wineberry said.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."