Affirmative Action on Michigan Ballot

 
A proposal on Michigan's ballot to ban racial and gender preferences in public university admissions and government hiring - in effect, to end affirmative action - has led to table-tossing protests, accusations of fraud and deception, and a string of court battles.
 
This year's election has reignited the state's contentious debate over affirmative action, last settled in 2003 when the U.S. Supreme Court scrutinized the University of Michigan's admissions processes. The high court threw out the undergraduate school's system that awarded extra points to minority applicants, but it upheld the law school's admissions process that took race into consideration but did not award points.  
 
The Michigan ballot measure would end preferences for women and minorities and is modeled after proposals passed by voters in California in 1996 and Washington state in 1998. All three ballot campaigns were spearheaded by African-American businessman Ward Connerly, formerly a University of California regent.

Supporters of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative say preferences amount to "legalized discrimination." 

Jennifer Gratz, executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative coalition, said that universities "should not be able to use race to engineer whatever student body they want." She said the ballot measure has appeal because "the people of Michigan are tired of our government picking winners and losers based on someone's race."
But opponents say the initiative would end affirmative action programs meant to level an uneven playing field for minorities and women. "We've come out against this because we believe it will mean the re-segregation, or the further segregation, of Michigan," said Donna Stern, national coordinator of By Any Means Necessary , the initiative's lead opposition group.
 
A poll taken this month by EPIC-MRA, an independent polling firm hired by a group of media companies, showed the Michigan public evenly divided, with 47 percent for and against the measure. The survey had a 4 percent margin of error. Two years ago, a similar survey in Michigan found 64 percent in favor of ending affirmative action in state hiring and college admissions.

The day after the Supreme Court ruling in June 2003, Connerly declared his intent to get an initiative on the Michigan ballot. He asked Gratz, one of the white students who sued in the case, to lead the effort. By January 2005, her group had turned in more than 500,000 signatures, far more than the 317,757 needed to get on the 2006 ballot.
 
But that immediately met with controversy. Opponents noted that about one-fourth of the signatures had come from largely black areas and accused Gratz's group of fraud. Hundreds of witnesses said they had been told the measure would support affirmative action, rather than end it. Some who circulated the petition said they'd also been misled.  
 
The debate turned physical at a December meeting where the state Board of Canvassers was to certify the initiative. The opposition group, By Any Means Necessary, recruited hundreds of minority students from local high schools to attend. The students disrupted the meeting, at one point rushing the board and overturning a table. In the end, the board lacked the votes to certify the petition.
 
A few days later, however, a state court bypassed the Board of Canvassers and ordered the initiative onto this year's ballot, saying the board's failure to certify the initiative "wrongfully thwarts and interferes with" citizens' rights to vote on the measure.

Opponents of the measure failed to convince the state Supreme Court to intervene and then filed a lawsuit in federal court, citing violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The judge ruled Aug. 29 that there was "systematic voter fraud" but refused to take the measure off the Nov. 7 ballot. Opponents plan to appeal. 
 
Immediately after a similar initiative took effect in California, the numbers of black, Latino and Native American students dropped throughout the University of California system. In recent years, however, those numbers have inched up to meet or surpass pre-initiative levels throughout the system.
 
However, the numbers of under-represented minorities remain low at the system's most competitive schools, UC Berkeley and UCLA. This fall UCLA will have just 96 black freshmen out of a class of more than 4,700, a 30-year low.
 
The 10-campus UC system is large enough to find places for minority students, but not at its flagship schools, said Evan Caminker, the dean of the University of Michigan Law School.
 
That's critical "because it's those flagship schools that ultimately provide the leaders for the state and country," Caminker said. "There's no question that graduating from UCLA or Berkeley opens doors in some ways that graduating from the other schools do not."
 
After the Supreme Court decision, several deans from the University of Washington system asked the Legislature to amend the law to once again allow race as a consideration in admissions. But a 2004 bill failed to pass.
 
What could be crucial to the fate of the Michigan initiative is the language on the ballot. The successful California and Washington proposals never mentioned the words "affirmative action." They stated that "the state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to" any individual or group on the basis of race or sex.
 
Pre-election surveys in Washington state showed that support fell sharply if voters thought the initiative would end affirmative action programs. In 1997, Houston voters defeated a referendum to end a city program that awarded 20 percent of contracts to minority- and female-owned businesses. The wording made it clear that affirmative action was at risk.
 
The Michigan Board of Canvassers attempted to walk the line between both sides when approving the Nov. 7 ballot language. The ballot states that the proposal would "ban affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment" to people based on race and gender. It included the language of initiative proponents ("preferential treatment") as well as the language of its opponents ("affirmative action").
 
Several organizations and high-profile politicians - including Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) and the Republican candidate for governor, Dick DeVos - have come out against the initiative. But both sides say there is more support for it than publicly indicated.
 
That is why opponents are fighting so hard to keep the proposal off the ballot, said Stern of By Any Means Necessary.
 
"Our concern is that Michigan has an 83 percent white electorate," she said, "and in the privacy of the voting booth, many white people, although they may tell pollsters otherwise, will vote for white privilege."
 
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