With race looming as a key issue in the fall elections—perhaps a pivotal one, assuming that Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee—diehard defenders of the racial status quo are going to unprecedented lengths to prevent voters from having their say on government-sponsored racial preferences. Leftist activists are lining up to fight four state ballot initiatives that, if passed on November 4, will outlaw preferential treatment based on race, gender, and national origin in public university admissions as well as government hiring and contracting. Knowing that such anti-preference initiatives enjoy strong public support—in fact, they have already passed overwhelmingly in three of the nation’s bluest states—the activists have zero interest in waging these fights on the merits. Rather, their goal is to keep the initiatives off the ballot by any means necessary, up to and including political chicanery and outright physical intimidation.
The states where anti-preferences forces are aiming to be on the ballot are Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, and Nebraska. Leading the campaign, dubbed “Super Tuesday for Equal Rights,” is California businessman Ward Connerly, long the nation’s leading advocate for colorblind government policies. In 1996, Connerly launched the first such measure, the California Civil Rights Initiative, or Proposition 209; he was drawn to the issue by his realization, as a trustee of the state’s university system, that race was routinely the key determinant in whether a student was accepted or rejected at California’s public colleges. Following a bruising campaign, marked by Prop. 209 opponents’ relentlessly attacking supporters as racist, the initiative passed by 8 points. Two years later, a near-identical measure won by 16 points in Washington State. And in 2006, despite a powerful Democratic tide, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative likewise passed by a decisive 58 to 42 percent.
In fact, so powerfully does the issue resonate with voters as a matter of elementary fairness that its support everywhere cuts across traditional party lines. In liberal Washington State, for example, the anti-preferences initiative was backed not only by 80 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of independents, but by 41 percent of Democrats; this in the face of liberal opposition that—abetted by such local corporate behemoths as Eddie Bauer, Microsoft, and Starbucks—massively outspent supporters of the measure. The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative similarly passed despite the fierce opposition of a liberal-left coalition of 180 groups, ranging from the League of Women Voters and the United Auto Workers to the Arab-American Institute. After the Michigan initiative’s passage, the leader of the most radical of the opposition groups, By Any Means Necessary, declared that the only way to stop anti-preference measures was to ensure that they never reached the voters.
While Connerly’s troops have gone about the difficult and costly process of placing the state initiatives on the ballot this November, preference defenders have seized on unprincipled strategies to block them, focusing in particular on two swing states with large minority populations: Colorado and Missouri. In Colorado, the pro-preference side first mounted a series of challenges to the legal basis of the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), alleging that it deceptively misappropriated the term “civil rights” and also claiming that “preferences” did not in and of themselves equal “discrimination”—so that in seeking to outlaw both, the measure supposedly violated the state’s “single-subject” rule governing ballot initiatives.
When these arguments failed to pass muster with the electoral commission and state courts, preference defenders tried an even more novel approach, deceptive in intent yet heavy-handed in execution: a ballot initiative of their own, a shadow version of the anti-preference measure clearly intended to confuse voters. Indeed, its first sentence is identical to that of the anti-preference measure: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado Constitution concerning a prohibition against discrimination by the state, and, in connection therewith, prohibiting the state from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, and public contracting?” But as Connerly notes, “it proceeds in the second sentence to say that, notwithstanding the first sentence, any public agency in Colorado would be free to leave preferences intact.”
After considerable back-and-forth, the state’s title board disallowed the language in the shadow amendment, and preference supporters are currently trying to come up with alternative wording. But given the need to submit upward of 76,000 valid signatures to place an initiative on the state ballot, the clock is running out. Meanwhile, CCRI supporters have already submitted 50,000 more signatures than required, so the genuine anti-preferences initiative will definitely be on the ballot.
So, almost certainly, will the measures in Nebraska and in John McCain’s home state of Arizona. Connerly remains confident about Missouri as well, though the opposition there has been even more aggressive in its tactics. Democratic secretary of state Robin Carnahan, charged with what is normally the routine certification of ballot measures, instead went to work on this one, eliminating its straightforward language, derived from that of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and substituting wording that pleads the other side’s case. The question, as she wanted to pose it to voters, was whether to amend the state’s constitution to “ban affirmative action programs designed to eliminate discrimination against, and improve opportunities for, women and minorities in public contracting, employment and education.” So egregious was this subterfuge that a liberal county circuit judge took the unprecedented step of throwing out Carnahan’s rewrite and reinstating the original language almost intact.
Still, as Connerly observes, “all the forces of the Left are converging in Missouri—Acorn and the rest of the race industry, the feminists, the unions, the contractors who feed off this stuff—and George Soros is providing a lot of the funding. They’re enlisting the whole vast left-wing conspiracy—and, believe me, it’s a lot vaster than the supposed right-wing one.” The ugliness is most evident on the streets, where supporters of the ballot initiative are busy gathering signatures. Opponents’ chief tactic is to use “blockers”—often burly union men—to shadow signature gatherers and scare off potential signers by charging not only that the initiative is racist and has the support of the Ku Klux Klan, but also that the signers risk identity theft. In addition, the pro-preferences sources have dispatched their people to sign petitions with false names and addresses, so that they will be invalidated later.
Earlier this year, such methods took their toll in Oklahoma, which was to be the fifth state holding such an initiative and where, with the measure polling at close to 90 percent, it would surely have won. In the end, though, the number of signatures gathered exceeded the required number by only a few thousand. Since typically only 72 percent of any petition’s signatures are valid, and since the ACLU and NAACP were importing teams to challenge every one, Connerly chose not to proceed. “We had a choice of spending a quarter of a million dollars to defend the signatures we had, with the likelihood of not succeeding,” he says, “or fight another day. Eventually we’ll have to sue to change that process.” But Oklahoma is a special case, with the toughest ballot requirements anywhere: all signature gatherers must be state residents, and they have a mere 90 days to get an unusually high number of signatures.
Connerly is taking no chances in Missouri. The fight against Carnahan’s rewrite of the initiative ate up considerable time, and with a May 4 deadline looming, he has put out a call for opponents of racial preferences to come to the state over the next few weeks and lend a hand. “I don’t blame the Democrats for being scared of these initiatives,” he says with understatement, “especially on the heels of Jeremiah Wright.”
Though the racial-preference ballot measures are officially nonpartisan, they stand to make a dramatic impact on the fall campaign. With the question of racial preferences effectively nationalized by its presence on multiple state ballots, neither party’s presidential candidate will be able to evade the issue. While this might pose a dilemma for McCain—who, like most Republicans, has long shied away from the topic and might worry about jeopardizing Hispanic support—it could be catastrophic for Obama. As Connerly says, “This is a guy who’s tried awfully hard for a long time not to appear what he is—just another left-winger who supports preferences.”