Measure to end affirmative action goes to voters

(Illustration/Lyle Lahey, Flickr)
(Illustration/Lyle Lahey, Flickr)

A campaign seeking to quash Colorado’s anti-affirmative-action ballot measure faces an onerous battle in the weeks ahead as the Nov. 4 election nears. The group behind the campaign hopes to convince voters to reject the ballot initiative, which will dismantle affirmative action programs if passed. But a series of failed legal challenges have left organizers with little cash as they scramble to put together a cogent countercampaign.

The anti-affirmative-action measure, Amendment 46, is part of what was originally a five-state effort this year in Colorado, Arizona, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma to end preferential treatment for women and minorities in public employment, contracting and education. Orchestrated by California businessman Ward Connerly, the anti-affirmative-action thrust failed to catch on in all but two states — Colorado and Nebraska. In the rest, petition circulators did not gather enough valid signatures to place it on the ballot, or, in the case of Arizona, state officials found irregularities in the signatures and struck it from the ballot. Similar Connerly-organized campaigns to limit affirmative action have previously passed in California, Michigan, and Washington state.

Vote No on Amendment 46, along with a group called Colorado Unity, also hoped to strip the so-called Colorado Civil Rights Initiative from the ballot by contesting the validity of tens of thousands of signatures gathered by Connerly’s paid circulators. But on Wednesday organizers opted to drop their lawsuit to do just that.

“Our time and energy are better spent elsewhere,” says Melissa Hart, a law professor at the University of Colorado who is spearheading the Vote No on Amendment 46 campaign. She and several others attempted to sue Amendment 46 organizers and Secretary of State Mike Coffman. She claims that petition circulators gathered thousands of fake or irregular signatures, and that between seven and 10 circulators were brought in from out of state. In Colorado it is illegal for out-of-staters to collect signatures for a citizens’ initiative.

“We looked around at the names and addresses” of the circulators, Hart says, “and it was easy to see that they no longer lived at the addresses. We spoke with a landlord who said that one person only lived there for a couple of months. There were other similar examples where this person just appeared and planned to leave. You don’t count as a citizen unless you are planning to stay.”

In July a district court judge ruled that Hart and her team would have to air their out-of-state circulator complaint with an administrative law judge instead. But rather than pursue continued litigation, they decided on Wednesday to kill the suit altogether.

“We felt that the judge’s ruling put us in a bad position; going through litigation is difficult, and those difficulties did not warrant us continuing this suit,” says Hart.

This is the second blow for the Vote No campaign this month. Organizers had also launched a counterinitiative, known as Amendment 82, which aimed to defend the state’s affirmative action programs in the case that Amendment 46 passes. But two weeks ago the secretary of state found that Amendment 82 did not garner sufficient signatures to make it onto the ballot. Hart says that her group may contest that decision. But for now they will focus on educating voters about the dangers of Connerly’s initiative.

“We are going to run the best campaign we can given limited time,” she says. “What I have seen over the course of the past few months is that the key to defeating Connerly’s deceptive language is talking to people and helping them hear what it actually does. What is so disconcerting to me about Amendment 46 is that it is so misleading.”

Connerly’s five-state effort, dubbed “Super Tuesday for Equal Rights,” has come under fire for its innocuous wording, which, opponents claim, makes people think they are signing on to defend affirmative action rather than destroy it.

But Hart and other organizers will have to scramble to battle the Connerly machine. According to campaign finance records, Vote No on Amendment 46 has raised $87,655 so far. And more than $39,000 of that was spent on lawyer fees.

Hart says that she doesn’t regret focusing on the lawsuit and that the group plans to raise and spend another several hundred thousand dollars before election day on yard signs, mailers and radio spots to defeat Amendment 46.

“What has become clear to me and what all the experts said months ago was you can spend the money you want right now, but nobody is going to be listening to you until after the Democratic National Convention and after we know what the ballot looks like. People weren’t focusing on the ballot. Now they are. And we are going to get them focused on 46.”

Meanwhile the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative has raised a whopping $343,280. Around $308,400 of that came from two of Connerly’s Sacramento, Calif.-based organizations: Super Tuesday for Equal Rights and the American Civil Rights Coalition.

Jessica Peck Corry, executive director of the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative and a policy analyst with the conservative Independence Institute think tank in Golden, says she doesn’t yet know what her group will spend on an advertising campaign. The group’s attorney, Scott Gessler, did not return a phone call seeking comment about how much the group has spent on legal fees. Campaign finance reports show a one-time $5,000 payment to Gessler’s firm.

“They have left us with substantial legal bills,” Corry says of the Vote No campaign. “That takes our energy and resources away from focusing on a voter education drive. And that is unfortunate.”

For more on Amendment 46 and Ward Connerly’s Colorado campaign, please take a look at our extensive past coverage.

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