States Cast Important Ballots for Civil Rights

by Barbara Hays,
Chapter/State Development Director

Across the country, ballot initiatives are an important focus of NOW's electoral work. In last November's off-year elections they were a major emphasis for NOW activists in several states. And right-wing opponents are creating still more work for activists in this new year.

In Houston, hard working activists successfully defended their city's affirmative action program. The program, which commissions the setting of voluntary goals for minority- and women-owned city contracting, is the first to face a ballot offensive since anti-affirmative action measure Proposition 209 passed in California.

The repeal effort in Houston received substantial financial help early in the campaign from Ward Connerly, a chief proponent of the California effort. However, Houston Mayor Bob Lanier campaigned on behalf of the program.

He and other affirmative action supporters pushed through a crucial clarifying change in the ballot language. Unlike California, where voters were misleadingly asked if they wanted to ban "preferential treatment," Houston's measure was ultimately framed as a question of whether to repeal affirmative action.

"There was a significant gender gap in the election's outcome," said Jeanne Sommerfeld, president of Texas NOW, pointing to the positive effect of women's votes. And the record appearance of African-American voters at the polls ensured that the program survived.

"Our student chapters really worked on this too, which helped," Sommerfeld said. "The impact of the Hopwood decision here, which abolished affirmative action at all Texas universities, was especially motivating. Even though this was about contracts, it's clear the conservatives want to end affirmative action everywhere."

In Washington state, voters defeated a ballot initiative prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation. The measure contained broad exemptions for small businesses and religious organizations, but was in line with other state laws regarding civil rights.

Opponents used the tactic of referring to the initiative as "preferential" in nature both in their campaigns and in the title of the anti-lesbian/gay coalition, No Official Preferential Employment (NOPE) when in fact, equal protection was all that was sought. In addition, a gun control measure also on the ballot brought out the National Rifle Association's big guns, turning out a disproportionately anti-lesbian and gay vote.

"The sheer number of progressive initiatives on the ballot really brought out the opposition," said Mary Clogsdon, coordinator of Washington State NOW, referring not only to the anti-discriminaion measure, but also to gun control and other measures. "The [anti-discrimination] measure only passed in King County [where the city of Seattle is located] by 53 percent. It should have done much better there."

A similar battle lies ahead in Maine, where the Christian Civic League, the Christian Coalition and other conservative groups collected the necessary signatures to force a referendum on the state's recently adopted gay civil rights bill. Maine NOW and other groups working against the effort reviewed signatures on the petitions in an attempt to keep the measure out of a special election.

"We weren't the only ones who didn't want to fight this again," said Rachel Lowe, coordinator of Maine NOW, recalling an anti-lesbian and gay citizen initiative on the ballot in 1995. "Our constitution requires that special election costs be shared by both the state and the communities, so little towns around our state will have to pay for this special election that very few seem to want."

The governor was required to call a special election and last month set it for Feb. 10. The wording of the measure will read: "Do you want to reject the law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation with respect to jobs, housing, public accommodations and credit?"

"This wording is great because the answer we want is no, " said Lowe. "It was "No on 1" in 95. So we'll be asking people to say no to discrimination again in '98."

In addition to the Maine special election, several other measures will require organized efforts this year. Washington state activists next face an anti-affirmative action initiative similar to California's Proposition 209. If the signature-gathering phase is successful, the measure, called Initiative 200, will go to the state's legislature to be voted upon. If they do not act, the measure will be on the ballot come November.

Washington State NOW Coordinator Mary Clogsdon said, "We're looking ahead, organizing early, and we have a broad coalition working on language. We're optimistic!"

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