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

The latest vote totals are 49.65 percent to restore affirmative action and 50.35 percent opposed. On Wednesday morning, the vote was 48.23 percent in favor of restoring affirmative action and 51.77 percent opposed.

The problem for those in favor of affirmative action is that the margin narrowed on the counting of votes -- all by mail in Washington State -- from King County (Seattle), where nearly 63 percent of voters approved. But the remaining votes are in more rural counties, which have been voting the measure down. In many of the rural counties, which have a fraction of the votes of King County, the referendum is losing by similar margins to which King County is supporting it.

Currently about 13,000 ballots separate the winning and losing sides -- out of 1,812,918 votes cast.

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.

What Does the Vote Mean?

All of the state votes except for one (in Colorado) have opposed affirmative action. And the votes haven't been particularly close (except for Colorado).

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes consideration of race and ethnicity in government programs, said "assuming we win, it's a welcome event."

Clegg said "it's significant" that Washington State, "a blue state where our side was greatly outspent," could deliver a victory to opponents of affirmative action.

Most large businesses and newspapers favored the measure. "The establishment was on the other side," he said.

The Asian American vote was split but may have had a major impact in the race. The push against the legislative action came largely from Asian Americans. But Gary Locke, a former Democratic governor of the state and its first Asian American in that role, campaigned for affirmative action.

Clegg said that "survey after survey has shown the overwhelming majority of Americans don't like racial preferences, especially in university admissions."

But Richard Anthony Baker, president of the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity and executive director for institutional equity and EEO at Rice University, said, "First, the Washington Legislature should be commended for recognizing the adverse impact that race-absent admissions policies had on their flagship institutions with Referendum 88 [the referendum], particularly for black and Latinx students, and having the will to give their schools the support needed to attract the best and brightest from its entire citizenry. While I also respect the will of the voters, I am saddened that in 2019, after decades of debate, favorable case law and supportive data, we must still fight for access and equity for educational opportunity for all Americans."

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