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Will Michigan Vote Mean More Race Ballot Questions?

By Peter Brown

Lost amid the headlines of the Democratic takeover of Congress was the decision by Michigan voters to ban affirmative action/racial preferences. The vote raises the question of whether Republicans will see the issue as one they should champion anew elsewhere.

On Election Day, when Michigan easily re-elected a Democratic U.S. senator and governor, a ballot measure to end such programs in college admission and state government hiring and contracting won by an even larger margin.

But virtually every major GOP official and organization, including the gubernatorial candidate, opposed the measure, as did Democratic leaders and candidates.

Yet the proposal won overwhelming support from Republicans and independents, and almost all demographic groups.

There is no doubt that ballot questions about such programs, which backers call affirmative action and opponents call racial preferences, engender strong feelings.

Many African-Americans argue that it is racist to end programs developed over the past 35 years which give racial minorities, and in some cases white women, an edge in competitive situations.

Those who want to end affirmative action/preferences retort that the program themselves are racist since they discriminate based on race. These folks say they want to create a color-blind society.

In the 1980s and 1990s Republicans used racially-tinged issues to their benefit. But few GOP candidates have recently campaigned on affirmative action/preferences, even though they are aware of its potency at the polls.

In Michigan, even more than in California and Washington, which passed similar measures in the 1990s, feelings ran high. The major group opposing the measure calls itself "By Any Means Necessary" and used the courts, politicians and mass rallies to make its case.

BAMN is now threatening a lawsuit to block the law's implementation even though the federal courts refused a similar effort by activists in California after that state passed its measure. And the president of the University of Michigan has suggested her school will do what it can to circumvent the thrust of the new law.

Even though the opponents reportedly outspent the supporters by a five-to-one margin and had most of the major media in their camp editorially, the measure passed by a 58-42 percent margin.

Significantly, pre-election polls had shown the race roughly even. That means voters either changed their minds at the last minute, or more likely, knew how they would vote all along, but gave what might be considered the politically correct answer when asked by strangers over the telephone.

The ballot measure won majorities among virtually all demographic groups except blacks, self-described liberals and Democrats. It passed 64-36 percent among whites who were 85 percent of the electorate, and lost 86-14 among blacks, who were 12 percent (roughly the national average) of the electorate.

Other than a 50-50 split among the 15 percent of the electorate with incomes of $15,000-$30,000, the measure carried every income group and every age group. Interestingly, the only group of voters, when classified by education, among whom it lost was the 16 percent of the Michigan electorate with post-graduate degrees. And it received 49 percent from them.

Faced with these numbers, Republicans nationally may be reconsidering whether and how strongly to raise the issue in other states. After all, Michigan is among the more liberal states in the country, as are California and Washington. Given the vote there, one wonders how similar measures would play, for instance, in swing states during a presidential year like 2008.

Both parties have been putting measures that help them politically on state ballots. In 2006, for instance, Democratic-allied groups pushed measures to raise the minimum wage. And conservative/Republican groups have been putting ballot question on banning gay marriage on state ballots.

Democrats/liberals will argue, of course, that raising an issue that involves race is morally reprehensible. The Michigan vote, however, is additional evidence that most Americans don't see affirmative action/preferences as fair, and instead favor a color-blind society.

The political question is whether the Republicans have the stomach for reaching out to this broad constituency at the price of being called various unflattering names by the opposition.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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