Washington State Voters Are Rejecting Affirmative Action

But margins are narrow.

November 7, 2019
University of Washington

Washington State voters appear to be narrowly rejecting the restoration of affirmative action in public college admissions.

The latest vote totals are 48.23 percent in favor of restoring affirmative action, and 51.77 opposed.

A referendum barred the consideration of racial and ethnic preferences in 1998, but the Legislature voted this year to lift the ban. That move prompted a petition drive to put the issue on the ballot.

State election results show the measure passing only in three of the state's counties and losing by wide margins in many of the more rural counties.

In the state, about 4 percent of the population is black, 2 percent Native American, 9 percent Asian American and 13 percent Latinx.

The University of Washington's main campus in Seattle is the most competitive in admissions in the state, and the one where Initiative 200, the ban on consideration of race passed in 1998, has had the greatest impact.

The most recent federal data show the university's student body mix has more Asian Americans (25 percent) than their share of the state population. But the shares of white (42 percent), black (3 percent), Latinx (8 percent) and Native American (less than 1 percent) students lag their share of the state population. (The numbers do not add to 100 because of those who don't identify their background, those who identify in multiple categories and so forth.)

A 2006 article in the journal Sociology of Education documented the impact of Initiative 200 on applications to the University of Washington. The article (abstract available here) found that, in the year following passage of the initiative, the percentage of nonwhite new high school graduates who went on to college dropped by two to three percentage points. Statewide, the drop was in part reversed.

The impact was greatest, and was sustained, at the University of Washington, the study found. Black, Latinx and Native American enrollment made up 8.2 percent of freshman enrollment at the University of Washington in the last year before 200 passed. It fell to 5.7 percent in the first class after 200, according to the study, by Susan K. Brown and Charles Hirschman.


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