OLYMPIA — Backers of a referendum turned in petitions Wednesday to put Washington’s new affirmative-action law on the November ballot, potentially setting up a heated campaign over ideas about fairness and diversity.
Although Referendum 88 has yet to qualify for the ballot, the petitions turned in by the Let People Vote campaign ratcheted up the stakes in a debate that has seen surprising turns over the past six months.
The Washington Legislature this spring passed Initiative 1000, a measure championed by Gov. Jay Inslee and three former governors that restores the use of affirmative action after a two-decade-old, voter-approved ban on the practice.
I-1000 allows the state to implement affirmative action in public employment, education and contracting, as long as neither quotas nor preferential treatment is used. It also creates a commission on diversity, equity and inclusion that would, among other things, make sure state agencies comply with the law.
The campaign supporting I-1000 gathered the most signatures for any initiative in state history, and went into debt along the way to do so. As an Initiative to the Legislature, it would have gone to the ballot if lawmakers didn’t approve it.
But the Legislature, known for sometimes punting on hot-button political issues, approved the measure in surprise votes on the last day of this year’s legislative session. Opponents immediately announced they’d seek a referendum.
On Wednesday, leaders of Let People Vote made good on their vow and announced that they had turned in roughly 176,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Let People Vote was preceded by a group called WA Asians for Equality, which protested I-1000 this spring when it came before lawmakers.
“We feel very excited,” said Kan Qiu, a 50-year-old Bellevue resident and sponsor of Referendum 88 who has been involved in both groups.
He and others have argued I-1000 would hurt Asian Americans, and that it is immoral to judge people by their skin color. They’ve also argued that the changes could hurt military veterans.
Qiu, who grew up in China and has said he participated in the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square, said he was confident Washington voters would strike down I-1000.
Wednesday’s development left supporters of I-1000 preparing for the possibility of a fall campaign.
Jesse Wineberry, a former Democratic state lawmaker who worked on the I-1000 campaign, called Referendum 88 the “anti-fairness and opportunity campaign” and said there is “overwhelming support for I-1000.”
In a statement, the Seattle-based Asian Counseling and Referral Service, which supported I-1000, said the advocacy organization is “confident voters will recognize the value I-1000 is already bringing to our state’s economy and communities of color.”
Joseph Shoji Lachman, a civic-engagement program manager for the group, said the organization recognizes there are concerns among some that discrimination could work against Asian Americans.
“However, we feel that affirmative action is the wrong target to go after,” said Lachman. “Overall, Asian Americans broadly support affirmative action and other holistic admissions.”
In a statement, Inslee called I-1000 “an important commitment to dismantling the systemic barriers that keep many Washingtonians from having equal access to educational and economic opportunities.”
State agencies have started initial work to implement the new law, but will now wait until the Secretary of State makes a decision on certifying the referendum before going any further, according to the statement.
If the Secretary of State’s Office certifies the referendum — a move that would likely happen in August — the new law would go on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.
To qualify, the Referendum 88 needs approximately 130,000 valid signatures from registered voters.
To make sure they have enough valid signatures, campaigns must generally turn in a number higher than the minimum requirement. Leaders for Let People Vote say they plan to submit more signatures up through the Saturday deadline.
Let People Vote has raised $690,803, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Clarification: Joseph Shoji Lachman said that his organization recognizes there are concerns among some that discrimination could work against Asian Americans. Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story inaccurately characterized his statement.