Michigan Votes Down Affirmative Action

January 2007

Michigan voters on Tuesday approved a ban on affirmative action at the state’s public colleges and in government contracting. The vote came despite opposition to the ban from most academic and business leaders in the state — and the history in which the University of Michigan played a key role in preserving the right of colleges to consider race as a factor in admissions.

Defenders of affirmative action had been encouraged in the campaign’s closing days by polls suggesting growing skepticism for the ban. But in the end, the ban won support from more than 58 percent of voters, according to unofficial results. Michigan thus followed a pattern in which some voters appear reluctant to tell pollsters of their opposition to affirmative action.

A CNN exit poll of Michigan voters suggested that the ban passed because of support from men. Sixty percent of men, but only 47 percent of women said that they backed the ban. By educational status, support for the ban was strongest among those who were college graduates, and opposition was strongest among those with postgraduate education. Among white voters, CNN found that 59 percent backed the ban, while only 14 percent of black voters did so.

The impact of the ban — known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative — is expected to be greatest at the University of Michigan, which has the most competitive admissions in the state. It is unclear how Michigan will respond to the change, which would take effect in the middle of an admissions cycle.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the university issued the following statement Tuesday night — before final results were in: “We defended affirmative action all the way to the Supreme Court because diversity is essential to our mission as educators. We must keep the doors of opportunity open to all. Regardless of what happens with Proposal 2, the University of Michigan will remain fully and completely committed to diversity. I am determined to do whatever it takes to sustain our excellence by recruiting and retaining a diverse community of students, faculty and staff.” Coleman plans to meet with students today to discuss the vote.

Donn M. Fresard, editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, which opposed the ban, said he didn’t expect major student unrest over the vote. “You are not going to see rioting on the Diag,” he said. “The average students isn’t overly upset about this, and you’d be surprised how many students support it. Especially among white students, support was pretty high.”

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative was the brainchild of Ward Connerly, who as a regent of the University of California led that system and then the state to bar affirmative action, with statewide action coming in 1996 vote. A similar vote two years later banned affirmative action in Washington State, but efforts by affirmative action foes then shifted largely to the courts, leading to the landmark 2003 Supreme Court decisions in two cases involving the University of Michigan.

Those decisions — one about the system used by Michigan to admit undergraduates and one about the system used by its law school — effectively said that colleges could continue to use affirmative action, but couldn’t have separate systems in which extra points were awarded across the board specifically for race and ethnicity. Many critics of affirmative action had high hopes that the Michigan cases would be used by the Supreme Court to roll back its 1978 ruling in the Bakke case, which upheld the right of colleges to consider race in admissions. When Bakke largely survived, Connerly and others shifted back to the referendum approach, with a focus on Michigan.

The effort in Michigan was controversial throughout the process. Defenders of affirmative action said that those who gathered petitions on behalf of the measure deceived citizens, leading many to sign the petitions without realizing what they were supporting. When Michigan courts said that the petitions were valid, the stage was set for the campaign that ended on Tuesday.

In that campaign, critics of affirmative action consistently talked about admissions — in black and white terms — at the University of Michigan. Defenders of affirmative action stressed the potential impact of the measure on the education of female students in schools and colleges, many of which have created special programs for them, especially in math and science. The emphasis on such programs was seen in the last week as eroding support for a ban — particularly among female voters.