DENVER (AP) — Colorado voters became the first in the nation to reject a ban on state affirmative action programs, narrowly defeating a measure that California businessman Ward Connerly has helped pass in four other states.
But with so many factors in play this historic election, it’s not clear whether Colorado’s vote is a turning point for such measures or an anomaly.
“More than anything else, more than anything, it was the tendency to just vote no,” Connerly said, blaming a complicated state ballot and the groundswell of support for Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president-elect.
By 51 percent to 49 percent, Coloradans rejected a proposed constitutional ban on considering race or gender in state hiring, contracting and college admissions. The Election Night tally showed voters about evenly divided, and The Associated Press didn’t declare a winner until Friday, when more votes had been counted.
In neighboring Nebraska, 58 percent of voters approved an affirmative action ban this week. Despite a legal challenge by opponents there, Nebraska college and municipal officials are already examining their programs to see if they violate the new ban.
Initially, it looked as though Colorado would follow the lead of California, Michigan and Washington in banning affirmative action. Polls showed the measure had support among Republicans and Democrats and men and women.
It was one of 14 measures Colorado voters faced on the nation’s longest ballot. Voters rejected most of them, including a proposal that could have led to shorter ballots.
Opponents said the affirmative action proposal — with language focused on ending discrimination and without a mention of affirmative action — was deceptive, and they launched a door-to-door campaign telling voters that it could end such programs as science camps for girls.
Criticizing Connerly as a “carpetbagger,” they ran radio ads in English and Spanish against the amendment with contributions from software entrepreneur Tim Gill and from Jared Polis, an Internet businessman who was elected a Democratic congressman Tuesday.
Gov. Bill Ritter, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and three Division I basketball coaches also spoke out against it.
“We’ve done something everybody was telling us was impossible,” said Melissa Hart, a University of Colorado law professor who led the opposition.
Connerly originally envisioned a “Super Tuesday for Equal Rights” this year featuring proposed bans in five states. In the future, he said, he’ll try to back campaigns in just two states at a time, and he didn’t rule out another try in Colorado.
Mark Long, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Washington who has tracked the state bans, thinks the big show of support for Barack Obama in Colorado helped tilt the state against the ban.
Long said other states could still pass bans, and he expects more lawsuits challenging the use of race as a factor in college admissions, which the U.S. Supreme Court has already limited.
Connerly points to Obama’s election as proof it’s time to end affirmative action.
“I applaud the American people that they made that judgment, apparently free and unencumbered by any biases based on his skin color, and the same thing ought to apply to ordinary people when they apply for a job, bid on a contract or seek college admissions,” said Connerly, who is black.
Anurima Bhargava, director of education practice at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, disagreed. She said there won’t be equal opportunity for minority students until their schools are improved and high school graduation rates are raised.
“Change is possible and change will hopefully come, but it hasn’t arrived at the election of Barack Obama,” Bhargava said.
The president-elect has criticized Connerly’s ballot measures as divisive and has said that affirmative action addresses hardships minorities face. But he also has said such programs should be extended to low-income whites and should exclude “privileged” minorities, like his two daughters.