SEATTLE — Opponents of affirmative action have defeated a measure in Washington State that would have restored the use of that diversity practice in government agencies, public contracting and state colleges.
Washington was among the first states to ban affirmative action 20 years ago. But amid shifting attitudes about lingering inequities and racial divides, supporters believed that this year provided an opportunity to repeal the ban.
The measure ultimately fell just short of approval, a coalition in Washington that supported affirmative action acknowledged. Votes in Washington’s all-mail-ballot election on Nov. 5 were still being counted. But tallies as of Tuesday showed voters sustaining the ban with 50.4 percent of the vote. The ban initially passed in 1998 with 58 percent of the vote.
Now attention turns to other states and legal cases involving affirmative action, including the expectation that the United States Supreme Court, with a new conservative majority, may eventually be asked to weigh in once again.
California was watching closely.
California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire and Oklahoma all have prohibitions on affirmative action.
California led the way, with voters approving a ban in 1996. Some lawmakers have made efforts to repeal that ban, most recently in 2014, but those attempts stalled.
Democratic leaders were watching Washington’s vote closely. Meanwhile, party leaders in California plan to adopt a new platform this month that will more prominently voice support for affirmative action.
Rusty Hicks, the chair of the California Democratic Party, said last month that he expected the issue would be revisited — he just could not say when.
Bans have impact for colleges and businesses.
Evidence suggests that affirmative action bans are having an impact.
The New York Times in 2013 examined the data on university admissions after affirmative action bans were adopted, finding that the bans appeared to have lowered minority admissions, especially in California.
In Washington State, the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises found that before the ban in the 1990s, about 10 percent of government contract funds went to businesses certified as being led by minorities or women. Since the ban, that proportion has dropped to about 3 percent.
Public opinion has been shifting.
Gallup found this year that 57 percent of white Americans favored affirmative action programs for minorities. That was the first time the poll — which has tracked the issue for years — showed that a majority of white people supported such programs.
Over all, 61 percent said they favored those efforts for minorities. But that did not appear to translate to ballot support in Washington State.
Polls have also indicated support for affirmative action programs from Asian-Americans, particularly those who are younger. Much of the opposition in Washington State was led by Asian-Americans — including some who worried that affirmative action could affect their record of success in university admissions — but many others supported the effort to restore affirmative action.
The Supreme Court may soon weigh in.
The next big development on affirmative action is likely to come from pending lawsuits.
The biggest is a case that has accused Harvard of intentionally discriminating against Asian-American applicants. A federal judge ruled last month there was no evidence of explicit bias, but that case appears destined to end up in the hands of the Supreme Court.
The last affirmative action case before the Supreme Court was in 2016, when the justices upheld race-conscious university admission practices in Texas. That decision was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
After Justice Kennedy vacated the seat, President Trump replaced him with a more conservative justice, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
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