OLYMPIA — Just 25,000 more votes might have done it.

In a state of 4.5 million registered voters — and a reputation for progressive politics — that’s all it would have taken last month to pass Referendum 88 and reinstate affirmative action in Washington for the first time in two decades.

Referendum 88 put to the public a vote on the measure known as Initiative 1000. Passed by the Legislature this spring, it sought to restore affirmative action and allow race, gender and other factors to select qualified candidates in public contracting, education and employment.

In a campaign full of charged politics and emotional arguments over race and equity, the statewide measure lost by 1 point. That made it one of the most closely decided ballot measures in recent times and left affirmative-action advocates weighing how they might still achieve at least some of their goals, even as Washington remains one of just eight states to have outlawed affirmative action.

Some Democratic state lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee now want to find other ways to improve equity without the affirmative-action measure.

This month, Inslee released a proposed supplemental operating budget that would spend $5.5 million on new diversity efforts.

That includes $1 million to create an Office of Equity to help state agencies “reach their inclusion goals,” according to the proposal. The office, for example, would be charged with helping agencies identify policies and practices that may perpetuate inequities.

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Other parts of the plan would create a database to better track how much money state agencies spend on businesses owned by women and minorities, and provide help to get such companies certified with the state.

Democratic state Sen. Joe Nguyen, who pushed for the Legislature this spring to vote on affirmative action, setting up its appearance on the November ballot, said he respected the will of the people after the loss of Referendum 88.

“But these are issues we are going to keep discussing,” added Nguyen, who is from White Center.

Let People Vote is a group led by Chinese immigrants that opposes affirmative action and got Referendum 88 on the ballot — a move supported by Republicans.

The election is over, but the group is not going away.

“We will keep a close eye on the development [of] any executive orders or legislative bills that would circumvent people’s will,” Linda Yang, one of the groups leaders, wrote in an email. “Voters’ will should be respected.”

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A narrow loss

In 1998, Washington voters decisively banned affirmative action by approving Initiative 200 with 58% of the vote. The measure that year passed in 38 of Washington’s 39 counties. Only King County rejected it.

This year, King was joined by four other counties — Jefferson, San Juan, Thurston and Whatcom — in approving Referendum 88 and affirmative action. In King, voters approved it with a resounding 63%.

This time around voters rejected affirmative action by smaller margins in some of Washington’s other big counties.

Kitsap County rejected affirmative action by 6 points. Snohomish County voters went against it by 9 points. And in Pierce County affirmative action lost by 12 points.

In 1998, voters in each of those three counties rejected affirmative action by at least 20 points.

For supporters of affirmative action, the loss stung. But the close vote lent some hope.

The narrow loss “reflects that Washington state is changing and growing and recognizing what diversity means,” said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, Skagit County.

She would like to see the issue brought back “to voters in a timely manner,” added Lekanoff, who last year became the first Native American woman elected to the state House.

Jesse Wineberry, the former state lawmaker who helped lead the signature-gathering campaign that brought the affirmative-action measure to the Legislature, said that such a narrow loss could establish the “foundation” for another attempt in 2020.

But Andre Perry of the Brookings Institution said the loss “means we have work to do at explaining the impact of historical and current discrimination on economic mobility.”

“Many people do not know their history, they do not know American history, they do not know that discrimination extended well beyond the abolition of American slavery,” said Perry, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

Republicans, meanwhile, celebrated the loss of Referendum 88, which they argued amounted to discrimination.

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Yang wrote that she hopes her group is included in future discussions about diversity and equity issues.

“But if we have to fight again in the future, we will do so and we will be far stronger, better organized and better funded if a fight comes our way,” Yang wrote in an email. “We hope that it does not come to that and that we will be listened to and included.”

What comes next

Affirmative-action supporters have said I-200’s ban hurt the ability for minority- and women-owned businesses to get public contracts.

They point to analysis showing a drop in state contracts for certified women- and minority-owned businesses since the 1998 ban that projects those businesses have lost a collective $3.5 billion in the resulting two decades.

And though the numbers of some underrepresented groups have increased at the University of Washington — like Black and Hispanic/Latinx — a research paper released this year showed they have lost ground at the UW compared to their share of the state’s population.

Meanwhile, the number of Native American undergraduate students has fallen since 1998, according to data provided by the school.

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The number of white students has also dropped — all as the number of undergraduate international students at the UW since 1998 has risen sharply, according to the data.

With the ban on considering race in admissions staying in place, “We will remain steadfast in our commitment and efforts within the law to attract and retain a diverse student, faculty and staff population,” UW spokesman Victor Balta wrote in an email.

In some areas, Washington may have been able to do more all along to help with diversity.

In 2017, the state Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion that types of affirmative action — such as reaching out to underrepresented groups to let them know about opportunities available to them — were not necessarily banned under I-200.

That 2017 opinion “did open up some doorways that people thought were closed before,” said RaShelle Davis, a senior policy adviser with Inslee’s office.

Inslee’s office and agencies in recent years have begun more work around diversity and equity. The governor in 2015 formed a subcabinet to help small businesses — as well as those owned by people of color, women and veterans — in state contracting opportunities.

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This summer, a study conducted by the state concluded that certified minority- and women-owned businesses have an “extremely difficult” time obtaining work on state government projects.

Some of its recommendations focused on outreach to those businesses, such as networking events and seminars to explain how state contracting works. Other recommendations focused more broadly on the difficulty that small businesses have getting state contracts, compared to larger companies.

One of those includes raising the “direct buy” limits, which allow state agencies to informally make purchases up to $13,000. Those small contracts “can lead to larger projects based on increasing the vendor’s experience” with state contracting, according to the study.

In an interview, Inslee said he supported that recommendation and other ideas. And, “We believe that we do have opportunities to continue our effort to bring more equity, inclusion and diversity to our state government,” he said. “Particularly to our contractors.”

The small versus large business conundrum in state contracting has some bipartisan appeal.

Sen. Hans Zeiger, a Republican from Puyallup who opposed Referendum 88, said he was concerned about the lack of diversity in contracting but said it can be improved by helping out small businesses more broadly.

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“I think we’ve got to focus on making Washington state fairer for small businesses,” said Zeiger.

Lisa van der Lugt, director of the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises, said the state can also improve outreach to let those businesses know opportunities are available, and also better collect data so the state can track its progress.

Without Referendum 88, state agencies can still take steps to improve hiring practices to make sure they have a diverse workforce, said Franklin Plaistowe, director of statewide human resources at the Office of Financial Management. Those steps also include more outreach, training for hiring managers on how to spot implicit bias and better tracking diversity data around hiring and retention.

“I’m of the opinion that it’s important for us to have this conversation,” said Plaistowe. “Always.”