Amendment 46 to repeal affirmative action loses despite hefty odds

(Photo/Nil, Flickr)
(Photo/Nil, Flickr)

After a two day post-election limbo, Colorado’s Amendment 46 failed yesterday on a slim margin. The so-called Colorado Civil Rights Initiative is the first anti-affirmative-action amendment propped by California businessman Ward Connerly to make it onto a state ballot and flop.

The significance is not lost on Amendment 46’s detractors. “I am thrilled,” says Melissa Hart, a University of Colorado law professor who co-ran the Vote No on 46 campaign. “Given that everyone kept telling us we couldn’t do it, it is exciting that we did.”

Connerly’s amendments have a strong track record of winning easily once they make it onto the ballot. He passed three similar proposals in California, Michigan and Washington state in years past. But Connerly’s 2008 push to end race and gender preferences in five states this year — called the Super Tuesday for Equal Rights — was largely unsuccessful. In three states — Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma — the proposal never made it to the ballot. In Colorado it was voted down. But it passed handily in Nebraska on Tuesday.

Hart says that she and others were aware of the difficulty of defeating the ballot amendment. Many voters, she says, found the language confusing and believed that they were upholding affirmative action rather than dismantling it.

“We would have preferred to not have it get on. It was important to us to fight every step of the way to keep the initiative out of our constitution,” she says. “The first step was to keep it off the ballot because past experience showed that once it was on the ballot it was going to be very hard to defeat.”

In September, the Vote No campaign filed suit against against Colorado Civil Rights Initiative organizers and Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman, alleging that Amendment 46 petition circulators buoyed the measure with thousands of invalid signatures. But the group dropped its suit as the election grew near. They were also unsuccessful in putting a counter measure on the ballot.

And though Amendment 46 was mired in allegations that petition circulators misled Colorado voters into signing onto the amendment, the proposal polled extremely well in the weeks ahead of the election.

So what accounts for the historic outcome? Hart says that a well-connected network of volunteers and a “grassroots educational network” stopped the amendment.

“We didn’t have much in the way of financial resources. We did Spanish language TV ads and we did a couple of radio ads. But this was really a grassroots person-to-person educational effort. That made this campaign different from ‘no’ campaigns in other states. They were more focused on advertising in the past. We didn’t have the resources. We had to do it person-to-person.”

The Vote No group raised around $211,570 for its campaign, more than half of it since the end of September in big donations from the Colorado Progressive Coalition and two groups called Civic Participation Campaign, Inc. and Colorado Progressive Action. The Colorado Civil Rights Initiative was almost entirely funded by Ward Connerly’s two nonprofit organizations. He gave upward of $350,000 to the campaign.

Jessica Peck Corry, director of the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative, did not return a phone call and an e-mail seeking comment on Amendment 46.

But reached late yesterday afternoon, Connerly said that the amendment likely failed because Colorado voters were overwhelmed with the long ballot and voted no. He also said that people who supported Barack Obama, in particular young people, blacks and Latinos, likely voted against ending racial preferences.

Though Connerly has previously said he intends to move forward with his project to end affirmative action, he told the Colorado Independent that he is turning his focus to prison reform.