OLYMPIA — Over the next few days, Washington voters will mark their ballots to approve or reject Referendum 88. Or is it Initiative 1000?
Actually, it’s both.
The question over whether to reinstate affirmative action in public contracting, employment and education could be one of the most convoluted for voters to untangle this fall.
And unlike many statewide ballot measures, the campaigns on either side of the affirmative-action debate haven’t raised gobs of money. So voters aren’t necessarily seeing the usual deluge of ads.
Voters don’t have much time left to figure it all out. Ballots for the general election are due Nov. 5.
So, here’s a quick primer on the affirmative-action debate.
In 1998, Washington voters approved a ballot measure (Initiative 200) that banned preferential treatment in public employment, contracting and education.
Now skip ahead a generation, to earlier this year. Democratic state lawmakers this spring used their majorities in the House and Senate to pass Initiative 1000 and bring back affirmative action.
I-1000 is geared toward boosting diversity in public education, employment and contracting, without the use of preferential treatment or quotas. Supported by Gov. Jay Inslee, the new law defines preferential treatment as selecting a less-qualified candidate based on a single characteristic, such as race or gender.
But opponents of the new law say it effectively adds up to a quota system by creating goals and timetables to increase diversity. The initiative also establishes a commission to oversee those efforts at state agencies, which some critics have derided as an unelected bureaucracy.
Those opponents quickly mobilized, gathering roughly 213,000 signatures to put I-1000 up for a public vote. It qualified and appears as Referendum 88 on the ballot.
Here’s where it gets tricky.
Even though the opposition campaign gathered signatures for the referendum, a vote in favor of R-88 actually approves I-1000, the new affirmative-action law.
A vote to reject R-88 nullifies the new law and reinstates the ban on affirmative action.
The nuance is not lost on the WA Fairness Coalition, the pro-affirmative-action campaign urging voters to support the referendum.
At least one election mailer sent by the group shows a sample ballot, with the “approved” option marked under Referendum 88.
“I have had people come up to me anecdotally saying, ‘If I want to approve I-1000, how do I vote on it?’ ” said Hyeok Kim, a former Seattle deputy mayor and co-chair of the coalition.
“For me, my biggest worry is the confusion,” she added.
Kim and other affirmative-action supporters call the affirmative-action measures necessary to make up for longstanding discrimination against women and people of color.
As of Wednesday, the coalition raised about $1.16 million, according to state campaign-finance records. Of that, it has reported spending about $944,000.
Among other things, that money has funded election mailers, TV advertising on multiple cable channels and radio advertising, according to state records.
The campaign opposing affirmative action, known as Let People Vote, has been doing its own outreach to potential voters.
That campaign has raised nearly $1.3 million — but spent much of that money getting the signatures necessary to put the referendum on the ballot.
In recent weeks, Let People Vote has spent more than $150,000 on phone banks and advertising, including newspaper and radio ads, campaign-finance reports show.
“We worked very hard to let people know how Referendum 88 discriminates and makes different rules for different races,” Linda Yang of the Let People Vote campaign wrote in an email. “And we also have seen many occasions when individuals have told us they’ve seen through this measure from the start.”
For affirmative-action supporters, the potential confusion is a fraught link back to the 1998 election where Washington voters banned the practice.
That year, voters decisively sided with the shoestring campaign that put I-200 on the ballot. Its official title was the Washington State Civil Rights Act.
The measure banned Washington state from discriminating against — or giving preferential treatment to — any group or individual or based on color, race, ethnicity, national origin or sex in public employment, public contracting or public education.
The victory caught affirmative-action supporters — who had their own well-organized campaign — by surprise, said Deirdre Bowen, a professor at Seattle University’s School of Law.
“The belief is that the way the referendum was framed and the way the discussion was framed” voters didn’t know exactly what they were voting for, said Bowen, who is an expert on affirmative action.
Kim, of the WA Fairness Coalition, says people have relayed that theory to her, too: “I know I heard people tell me a lot of folks were confused in 1998.”
But on the eve of that election, voters surveyed in a Seattle Times poll said they did understand the measure. “The evidence is that the voters knew what they were doing on I-200,” pollster Stuart Elway said at the time.
Regardless, there hasn’t been much of a public debate over affirmative action in Washington since then.
Younger voters may not remember I-200, said Kim. And even the phrase “affirmative action” may not be as familiar, she said, since discussions about equity nowadays instead often use terms like diversity and inclusion.
“It’s been 20 years,” she said. “It’s not like five years ago that I-200 passed and it’s a little more fresh on people’s minds.”