Voters should affirm the state’s commitment to equity by approving Referendum 88 on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Diversity makes institutions stronger, but good intentions are not enough to lift the unfair burden of societal inequality. Our public institutions must actively work to reflect the communities they serve.
A vote to approve Referendum 88 would allow public employers and colleges to do so, by taking diversity into account as one factor in public employment, government contracts and public education.
R-88 would affirm a new law the Legislature passed this spring that seeks to guarantee equal opportunity and access to public institutions and business without discrimination based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, sexual orientation, disability or military status. Also known as Initiative 1000, the new law reverses a 20-year-old ban on affirmative action policies, while ensuring fairness by specifically forbidding quotas and preferential treatment based solely on the listed characteristics. It adds a measure of accountability by establishing a Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, to monitor state agencies’ compliance with the legislation.
As former Gov. Dan Evans, the Republican who created the state Commission on Civil Rights in 1965, testified in a public hearing last spring, “the door of opportunity is still just ajar and not fully open. We can do better than that, and I believe that Initiative 1000 is a responsible measure that will help us throw the doors of opportunity wide open.”
When The Seattle Times editorial board recently asked readers to share their questions about the referendum, one asked whether it guarantees institutions the right to select only qualified persons. It does.
The law explicitly forbids establishing quotas or selecting a less-qualified applicant solely on the basis of membership in a historically disadvantaged or underrepresented group.
This provision has caused some confusion about whether I-1000 would weaken or eliminate existing public-employment preferences for veterans.
A legal review by University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer concluded that it would not. In an April memo to the governor’s office and state Solicitor General, Spitzer wrote that Washington’s previous law, which grants veterans additional points on civil service examinations, could not be considered “preferential treatment” under the definition laid out in I-1000 because those points are only part of the final scoring.
Spokane attorney Thomas Jarrard, former chair of the Washington State Veterans Bar Association and opponent of I-1000, disagrees. Those extra points would constitute preferential treatment because they are awarded solely because of veteran status, he said.
Opponents have seized on this murkiness, along with an omission of veterans and disability status in the list of characteristics in another section, to suggest veterans would be left behind under I-1000. This disregards the law’s clear intent. Less charitably, their position could be seen as a disingenuous attempt to pit veterans — a population that itself is becoming increasingly diverse — against other historically underrepresented groups.
Voters should remember that these details are easily addressed by amending the legislation.
Similarly misguided, if heartfelt, are some critics’ concerns about affirmative action in higher education. Here again, the law seeks to expand, not limit, opportunities.
As one of only eight states to ban affirmative-action policies, Washington has been disadvantaged in recruiting a diverse pool of talented students and faculty. As Philip Ballinger, University of Washington Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions, told a Seattle Times reporter, “Some other excellent institutions in the country have been able to eat our lunch.”
Referendum 88 gives voters the power to eliminate that competitive disadvantage, enabling our state’s public colleges and universities to recruit a diverse pool of excellent students and faculty, enriching the educational experience of all.