Let Washington voters debate, decide on affirmative action. This isn’t Charlottesville. We can handle it

A volunteer holds a sticker showing support for Initiative 1000 outside a joint Washington state House and Senate committee on April 18. Ten days later, both chambers adopted I-1000 and Gov. Jay Inslee signed it.
A volunteer holds a sticker showing support for Initiative 1000 outside a joint Washington state House and Senate committee on April 18. Ten days later, both chambers adopted I-1000 and Gov. Jay Inslee signed it. AP

Affirmative action has a long and fitful history in Washington since the 1960s, marked by well-intentioned efforts to root out systemic discrimination and inject needed diversity into public institutions.

The Legislature’s approval of Initiative 1000 last weekend means a new phase of affirmative action is on the horizon in our state. And with it, majority Democrats claimed a crowning achievement in the final hours of the 105-day session.

There’s just one problem: Voters were denied an opportunity to weigh in. For right or wrong, they’re the ones who yanked the thread that unwound a controversial web of government race- and gender-based preference programs two decades ago.

If I-1000 becomes law by legislative mandate, it flies in the face of the previously expressed will of voters.

The last time the people of Washington spoke on this issue, in 1998, the result was an emphatic 58-percent vote in favor of Initiative 200. That law, still on the books today, prohibits the state from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment in public education, employment and contracts on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

Voters may be ready to change what they did in 1998, but it’s presumptuous for the state to do so without their blessing.

Fortunately, voters may yet be heard before I-1000 becomes law. Activists filed a referendum Monday to force the measure on the November ballot. To qualify, they have a big hill to climb: collecting nearly 130,000 signatures in less than three months.

The referendum is spearheaded by anti-affirmative action group Washington Asians for Equality. But make no mistake: One doesn’t have to oppose the spirit of affirmative action to want this on the ballot.

Indeed, there are compelling arguments why state and local governments should strive to level the playing field by targeting people from disadvantaged or underrepresented groups — and why factors beyond sex and race should be considered.

I-1000 speaks to Washington’s highest values by saying every person should get a fair shake, and it adds provisions based on age, disability, sexual orientation and military status.

There are also compelling arguments why the previous initiative created more problems than it solved. I-200 had a regrettable chilling effect on government contracts held by women and minority-owned businesses. And some public employers and colleges stopped outreach efforts that reflected Washington’s rich mosaic of people.

That’s why the Legislature approved I-1000 last weekend, taking the rare step of directly adopting a citizen initiative rather than sending it to the ballot.

The initiative has the laudable goal of getting more diverse candidates in the pipeline, but it wisely bans quotas and preferential treatment in hiring, promoting, enrolling students and awarding contracts.

Washington’s three living former governors — two Democrats and a Republican — support I-1000, and the current governor, Democrat Jay Inslee, wasted no time signing it Sunday night.

But there are equally compelling arguments to let voters render the final verdict on I-1000.

By sidestepping the electorate, legislators went against custom; 30 of the last 33 initiatives submitted to the Legislature have gone to the ballot without lawmakers’ fingerprints on them.

The last time they got involved — last year’s Initiative 940, revising standards for police use of deadly force — they did it so clumsily that the state Supreme Court had to intervene. In the end, I-940 initiative went to the ballot anyway.

But the best argument for letting voters decide on I-1000? They’re the ones who originally approved I-200, and they’re the ones who should fix it now.

The Legislature at that time allowed the initiative to advance to the ballot untouched. Why should it be different this time?

Some have argued Washington doesn’t need a divisive election campaign over affirmative action, particularly when the country is already roiled by inflammatory racial rhetoric. But this isn’t Charlottesville, Virginia. Our state can handle a grown-up debate about challenging issues.

Rep. Morgan Irwin of Enumclaw summed it up well: “We should trust the voters of the state of Washington to take a hard look at I-1000.” Irwin opposed adoption of the initiative Sunday, joining fellow Republicans in party-line votes in the House and Senate.

Democrats, meanwhile, gave voice to the persistent evil of discrimination and the shining ideals of diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity.

“We all deserve respect in this state, from the first people who have been here for thousands of years to the immigrants who arrived yesterday,” said Rep. Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma.

She gets no disagreement from us. But on the list of respect-worthy Washingtonians, voters surely ought to have a place.

Here’s hoping the referendum gains momentum and I-1000 finds a roundabout way to the November ballot.