A political milestone has been passed in the state of Washington: affirmative action has gone down. Voters have rejected Referendum 88, a measure to relegalize racial preferences in state employment, education, and contracting.
This is an issue that speaks directly to libertarians. We think in terms of individuals. In our view, justice requires that government treat individuals of different races by the same rules. To us, “affirmative action” is an Orwellian term for a policy of preferential treatment, which amounts to institutional racism.
Libertarians may disagree on a number of things, but I think we all agree on this.
In Washington, racial preferences in state and local government had been banned by law since November 1998. This is the way it happened. The state legislature, Republicans included, never would have passed the original law. They didn’t have the courage. But a couple of policy entrepreneurs, inspired in 1996 by California’s Proposition 209, started a signature drive to put the issue on the ballot. Their measure was called Initiative 200; it was opposed by all right-thinkers in government and the media, and in November 1998 it swept the state with 58% of the vote. Only King County, which contains Seattle, voted in favor of preferences.
To libertarians, “affirmative action” is an Orwellian term for a policy of preferential treatment, which amounts to institutional racism.
This time around, the defeat of racial preferences has been a much closer thing. The public vote was on Referendum 88, a measure to bring back affirmative action. As I write (November 12), 98% of the votes are in, and Referendum 88 is being rejected by 50.41% of voters. In only four of the state’s 39 counties are voters approving it. The highest percentages for approval are in King and San Juan counties — metro Seattle and the San Juan Islands — which are Washington’s two counties with the highest median personal income and the strongest propensity to vote left. (The third most leftwing county is Jefferson, which contains Port Townsend, the former home of Liberty. The magazine’s founder, Bill Bradford, would not be surprised that Jefferson County, 91% white, also supported racial preferences.)
Washington is a Democratic state. Our Democratic politicians believe deeply in the moral necessity of treating people of different races differently in the pursuit of equal results. They have wanted to bring back the practice for 20 years. For a long time they dared not do it, but in 2019 they slipped it through.
Apart from referendums (explained below), Washington has two kinds of voter-initiated ballot measures: initiatives to the people and initiatives to the legislature. Under the first kind, the people collect signatures to put a measure on the ballot, and if they pass it, it becomes law. Under the second kind, the people petition the legislature to adopt a law they propose. If they collect enough signatures, the legislature has three options. It can pass the measure into law, refuse to pass it and let it go to the ballot, or pass an alternative measure and let both of them go to the ballot.
The signature drive to bring back racial preferences, which was called Initiative 1000, was an initiative to the legislature. As a result of the “blue wave” of 2018, the Democrats hold both houses in Olympia. On the last day of the spring 2019 session legislators passed Initiative 1000 straight into law. All the Democrats except for one in each house voted for it, and all the Republicans voted against it. Initiative 1000 became law without a vote of the people.
Our Democratic politicians have wanted to bring back the practice for 20 years. For a long time they dared not do it, but in 2019 they slipped it through.
Washington also has the right of referendum, which allows the people to petition to put a brand new law on the ballot. Another political entrepreneur did just that, by collecting signatures for Referendum 88, which offered the voters the chance to vote “Accepted” or “Rejected” on the words of Initiative 1000.
That particular troublemaker was Kan Qiu, an immigrant from China. There was a reason the fight against preferences was being led by an Asian. In the state universities, Asians, whether immigrants or native-born, are the group most obviously threatened by racial quotas. Asians make up 7.8% of the resident population of Washington but 24% of undergraduates at the University of Washington. And that’s not counting foreign students. If racial preferences were allowed, the student body would probably not mirror the population exactly, but it’s a sure bet that “overrepresented” Asians would have to jump a higher hurdle.
Kan Qiu and his supporters wanted the people to vote “Rejected” on Referendum 88. Their argument in the Voter’s Pamphlet is clear: “Referendum 88 allows the government to use different rules for different races . . . That’s wrong. And it divides us further apart.”
But the description of Referendum 88 in the Voter’s Pamphlet, which is supposed to be non-biased, painted a different picture. It called Referendum 88 a measure to “allow the state to remedy discrimination for certain groups and to implement affirmative action, without the use of quotas or preferential treatment (as defined), in public education, employment and contracting.”
If racial preferences were allowed, it’s a sure bet that “overrepresented” Asians would have to jump a higher hurdle.
The red-flag words are “as defined.” The original Initiative 1000, and Referendum 88, which restated it for the voters, defined preferential treatment as using race or group identity “as the sole qualifying factor to select a lesser qualified candidate over a more qualified candidate.” Race could be a factor, but not the sole qualifying factor. In other words, as long as the state could point to one other factor, it could discriminate by race.
This is defining “preferences” as a box so small that nothing will fit in it.
The opponents of preferences pointed out this tendentious definition every chance they could, but it was in the Voter’s Pamphlet, approved by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Democrat. The supporters of preferences made the most of the official words, claiming over and over that Referendum 88 would not allow preferences. Those supporters included Washington’s leading newspapers and three former governors, including Gary Locke, who is Chinese American — and also a Democrat.
In Washington we have never had to register as Democrats or Republicans, so I can’t say how many of each there are, but the people do mostly vote Democrat.
Most of the rest of the candidates blew through the $150,000 donation limit. So Democracy Vouchers didn’t actually limit anything.
Not this time. This was a Democratic measure, and it failed — barely.
And barely counts.
Unfortunately, the same applies to municipal elections.
I had hoped to report to Liberty readers that the voters of Seattle had finally tossed out their Trotskyite councilwoman, Kshama Sawant. But Sawant, first elected in 2013, has been reelected again, along with most of the progressive-left candidates to the Seattle City Council.
Money was a big issue. Seattle has won praise (from Andrew Yang, for example) for its Democracy Vouchers program, which was supposed to “take money out of politics.” The program gives each voter $100 in vouchers to give to candidates that stayed within donation limits. But Sawant never signed up for Democracy Vouchers, arguing that she was going to be targeted by the corporations and would have to raise all the money she could. And most of the rest of the candidates blew through the $150,000 donation limit. So Democracy Vouchers didn’t actually limit anything.
I threw my vouchers away.
Sawant was right in her predictions about money from business. In mid-October, Amazon, which is based in Seattle, dumped $1 million into the city council campaigns. The Left had its union money and Sawant had her socialist money from around the country, but it was Amazon’s money on the other side that became the talk of the town. Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders tweeted from afar:
Jeff Bezos and Amazon think they can buy elections. They spent $1 million to stop City Council candidates @d1forLisa, @TammyMoralesSEA, @VoteSawant and @ElectScott2019. Show Amazon that they can't buy our democracy and that their corporate greed won't stand. Get out and vote!
They did, and the Left took every seat it wanted except one. In that one, the Left’s candidate was another avowed socialist, but without the name, the panache, or the district Kshama Sawant had. And he got 47.6% of the vote.
“Our movement has won,” Sawant crowed, “and defended our socialist council seat for working people against the richest man in the world.” Her next goal will be citywide rent control (which would require a change in state law) and another tax on business. The Seattle Times’ photo of her victory rally shows her supporters raising clenched fists behind a huge banner that reads, “TAX AMAZON.”
In mid-October, Amazon dumped $1 million into the city council campaigns.
The fight had started with a tax on Amazon. In 2018 the Seattle City Council voted to impose a “head tax” — a flat tax per employee — on large for-profit employers, with the money to be spent on the homeless. The Left made a point of saying that the tax would hit only the top 3% of employers, which was supposed to show how reasonable it was. The tax would have cost the city’s largest private employer, Amazon, tens of millions of dollars a year. When Amazon and other companies began bankrolling a voter petition to put the tax on the ballot as a referendum, and a poll showed that the voters would kill it, all but one of the Democrats on the council quickly voted for repeal. Sawant, the lone Marxist, condemned them as cowardly, which they were. She also led a public demonstration in front of Amazon’s headquarters and condemned CEO Jeff Bezos as “the enemy.”
In 2018 it did seem that the voters of Seattle were ready to sweep Sawant and her allies off the council. And this year, when seven of the nine council members were up for reelection, several of them declined to run. The council member in my district was one of them — but, alas, he has been replaced by another much like him.
The candidate chosen to run in Kshama Sawant’s district was a political novice named Egan Orion, a man best known for organizing PrideFest, a gay celebration. By any national standard he was pretty far left himself, but this is Seattle and Sawant’s district is the leftiest part of it.
Sawant, the lone Marxist, condemned them as cowardly, which they were.
There were things a nonleftist might like about Orion. Being known for a celebration made him less of an irritant than someone known for screaming at Jeff Bezos, or for the $15 minimum wage. Sawant was for rent control — and on Orion’s web page was an article about how rent control would hurt small landlords. In the county’s Voter’s Pamphlet, which has statements from all the candidates, Orion said he wanted to “expand all types of housing,” which was a politically correct way of saying he was not against builders of market-rate housing, which the Left blames for displacing the poor. Orion also said he wanted the city government to help women, gays, and people of color to start businesses. Passing over the intersectionality stuff, I perceived that he was in favor of people starting businesses. He also promised to “focus on outcomes, not ideology,” which seemed to be a nice way of saying he was not a fan of Leon Trotsky.
The state of Washington runs elections by mail, so that election day is really start-counting-the-ballots day. On the first count, Orion was ahead, with Sawant polling only 45.6%. Though she had come from behind and won in an earlier election, her supporters were worried. Socialist Alternative, the national newspaper of Sawant’s party, wrote,
Seattle is experiencing its own local variant of the right-populist wave which elevated Trump to power. Middle-class anxiety in the face of growing economic insecurity and social decay is exploited by big business and the rich, who are waging a ferocious struggle against the rise of socialist ideas and movements demanding limits to their wealth and power.
The chief evidence of a “right-populist” wave in Seattle was a local TV documentary about homeless encampments called “Seattle Is Dying.” (It’s on YouTube.) There are some right-wingers in Seattle, but you’d have to hire a detective to find them. In 2016 Trump got 8% of the vote here. Bernie Sanders could take this city easily. If he does, he will have a comrade on the city council who has just been reelected.