OLYMPIA — King County on Friday made the Referendum 88 race a nail-biter, giving hope to people who have waited two decades for Washington state to end its ban on affirmative action.

But even with two massive vote drops — one in the afternoon and the other at night — King County’s support looked like it would not be enough to push Referendum 88 over the top.

By the end of Friday, the measure — geared toward increasing diversity in public contracting, employment and education — trailed by fewer than 10,000 votes, 49.7% to 50.3%. The difference wasn’t close enough to trigger a mandatory recount.

As votes continue to stream in over the coming days, the remaining math for affirmative-action advocates looked increasingly difficult.

About 50,000 votes remain to be tabulated in Snohomish County, where Referendum 88 has been down by about 10 percentage points.

More than 70,000 votes are still to be tallied in other counties — including Pierce, Yakima, Kitsap, Skagit and Spokane — where voters were soundly rejecting the measure.


The votes left in those counties must shift strongly toward Referendum 88, or the measure will fail.

King County voters Friday were approving the measure with about 63%. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, there are still about 6,300 ballots on hand that remain to be counted from King in the coming days.

That lent optimism to the campaign against Referendum 88, known as Let People Vote.

Linda Yang, one of the group’s leaders, wrote in an email Friday afternoon that “we continue to feel encouraged.”

Since the referendum was shown to be trailing in Tuesday night’s initial results, King County has remained a consistent question mark, where voters have been approving the measure by massive margins.

With about 131,500 King County votes posted Friday afternoon, Referendum 88 briefly took the lead for the first time, giving the pro-affirmative-action campaign, the WA Fairness Coalition, cause to celebrate.


“Obviously, we’d rather be on this side rather than on the other side,” April Sims, co-chair of that campaign, said shortly after Referendum 88 pushed ahead.

But, she added, “We’re keeping a close eye on things.”

Within the hour, though, Referendum 88 once again trailed, as Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane and other counties began posting fresh results in what has been one of the closest statewide measures in recent times.

The referendum sparked a broad conversation that in Washington hadn’t taken place since 1998, when voters here banned affirmative action with Initiative 200.

The new measure arrived at a charged moment, as America reckons with deepening political divisiveness driven, in part, by race. The conversation about equity and fairness emerged in a state that is increasingly diverse — yet still overwhelmingly white.

The measure — which began as Initiative 1000 — was a David vs. Goliath-type contest, with affirmative action playing the former almost all the way.

A grassroots campaign gathered the most signatures in state history for an initiative put to the Legislature.


Washington state lawmakers — who often balk at taking action on controversial proposals — passed I-1000 in late April, in a surprise vote the evening of their final day in session.

In the face of that, a group led by Chinese immigrants firmly opposed to the measure sprung into action.

The group — who testified against I-1000 at the Legislature and even marched loudly in protest through the halls of the Capitol building — brought together a referendum campaign known as Let People Vote.

They quickly raised about $700,000 while gathering their own signatures and got I-1000 on the ballot as Referendum 88.

Meanwhile, the original I-1000 campaign had racked up debt to signature-gathering firms, and was sued. Another coalition coalesced on short notice to carry the measure forward.

During the campaign season, neither side generated the huge sums of contributions often seen in Washington’s ballot measure fights, and large barrages of advertising were largely absent.


Meanwhile, voters had to contest with a confusing measure: Voting for Referendum 88 actually meant voting for I-1000.

Affirmative-action supporters say the policy is needed to account for longstanding discrimination against women and people of color.

One example cited is data that shows a drop in state contracts for certified women- and minority-owned businesses. In the meantime, research has shown that some groups — like Native American, African American and Hispanic citizens — have lost ground at the University of Washington.

Opponents of Referendum 88 have contended the policy creates a quota system and would allow government to discriminate on the basis of race.