OLYMPIA — With Referendum 88 trailing by a slim margin, Washingtonians appeared like they might, for the second time in two decades, vote against affirmative action.

With most counties reporting results Tuesday, voters were rejecting the measure 51.3% to 48.7%, in an election that tested ideas of fairness and discrimination. Many more votes remain to be counted.

Supporters of affirmative action have said the policy is necessary to combat discrimination that determines who gets access to universities, government jobs and public contracts.

But throughout the campaign, opponents of affirmative action — led by a group of Chinese immigrants — said the policy gives the government the power to discriminate.

They criticized a commission that would have been created to oversee diversity efforts at state agencies, and they argued existing benefits for veterans were at risk.

“I think when you add all those together, voters don’t like it,” Linda Yang, a leader of the anti-affirmative-action campaign, Let People Vote, said Tuesday night.

Supporters of affirmative action on Tuesday kept hope blazing for a shift in their direction, with many ballots still to be counted in King County, where 60% so far were favoring affirmative action. .


“I’m looking toward the last-minute ballots coming in,” said Cherika Carter, campaign manager for the Washington Fairness Coalition, the campaign supporting Referendum 88. “I recognize that young people and people of color like to take their time voting.”

In addition to King County, the measure Tuesday night was passing in Jefferson, San Juan and Whatcom counties.

But voters in the Western Washington counties of Pierce, Snohomish, Clark and Thurston joined with Eastern Washington in rejecting the measure.

Referendum 88 put to a vote the affirmative-action measure known as Initiative 1000, which Washington state lawmakers passed this spring after a signature-gathering campaign brought the measure to the Legislature.

The campaign has been the biggest public conversation on an emotional and highly charged issue since Washingtonians in 1998 banned affirmative action by a vote, and has served as a barometer for feelings about the state of equity and discrimination here, 20 years on.


I-1000, the measure passed by lawmakers, aims to increase diversity in public contracting, employment and education, while barring the use of quotas or preferential treatment.

The measure defines preferential treatment as using a single factor — such as gender, race, age or sexual orientation — to choose a lesser-qualified candidate over a better-qualified candidate.

Affirmative-action supporters say such measures are necessary to address longstanding and broad discrimination against women and people of color. One example they cite is data showing a drop in contracts with the state for certified women- and minority-owned businesses.

Supporters of restoring affirmative action include Gov. Jay Inslee and former governors Dan Evans, Christine Gregoire and Gary Locke, the first Chinese American governor in U.S. history, who campaigned for the measure.

The effort to put the measure reinstating affirmative action before the Legislature gathered nearly 400,000 signatures. The campaign, led in part by former state lawmaker Jesse Wineberry, spent into debt along the way, however, and is now being sued for not paying its signature-gathering firms.

Once it hit the Legislature, opponents of affirmative action strongly protested the new measure.


They and other critics say I-1000 adds up to what is effectively a quota system by creating diversity goals and timetables to reach them.

Kan Qiu, a Bellevue resident who helped lead the opposition campaign, has talked about growing up in China and protesting at Tiananmen Square during the infamous 1989 demonstrations before coming to the U.S. for college. Qiu has told his story of coming to America and building a successful life, and has called the affirmative-action measure “divisive.”

Once Democratic lawmakers approved I-1000 on the final day of the legislative session, opponents sprang into action.

They gathered signatures of their own — roughly 213,000 — to put I-1000 on the ballot as Referendum 88 in an effort to overturn the new law and keep the affirmative-action ban in place.

The Washington state and King County Republican parties endorsed the campaign against the affirmative-action law.

The group supporting affirmative action, the Washington Fairness Coalition, raised about $1.2 million as of Tuesday, according to state campaign-finance records. It has reported spending about $944,000 of that, including for TV ads and election mailers.


The opposing campaign, known as Let People Vote, raised nearly $1.4 million. But the group had to spend much of that to collect the signatures necessary to qualify the measure for the ballot.

As the campaign season progressed, both sides focused arguments on whether I-1000 would help or hurt Washington’s veterans, who have long benefited from their own affirmative-action statutes.

An assessment by University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer found that “I-1000 poses no conflicts whatsoever” with the current veterans’ preference.

But John Tymczyszyn, legislative director for the Washington State Veterans Bar Association, has said he believes I-1000 would end the existing preferences for veterans.

Seattle Times staff reporters Michelle Baruchman and Erik Lacitis contributed to this report.