States Cast Important Ballots for Civil Rights

Article excerpt

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. …