Voters Reject Affirmative Action In 8 Out Of 10 Ballot Measures

Citizens in seven states express opposition to expanding or implementing affirmative action policies.

      UCLA freshman D'Juan Farmer (CQ) marches with students against Prop 209 on the UCLA campus in Westwood Wednesday, November 15, 2006. Farmer is one of only 96 black first-year students. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Voters in seven states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Washington—have decided on 10 ballot measures related to affirmative action policies. 

Of these 10 ballot measures, voters decided against certain affirmative action policies eight times, either enacting prohibitions or defeating measures that would have expanded the use of affirmative action. Twice voters defeated measures that would have prohibited certain affirmative action policies.

  • Six ballot measures were approved that prohibited the use of affirmative action; 
  • Two ballot measures were defeated that would have prohibited the use of affirmative action; 
  • One ballot measure was defeated that would have repealed a prohibition on affirmative action; and 
  • One veto referendum was defeated to keep a law from taking effect that would have allowed affirmative action.

The eight measures that proposed policies against affirmative action had an average ‘yes’ vote of 54%, and the two measures that proposed policies in favor of affirmative action had an average ‘yes’ vote of 46%.

Of the ten measures, five were citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, and one was an initiated state statute. Three were legislatively referred constitutional amendments, and one was a veto referendum.

California was the first state to feature a ballot measure related to affirmative action, with the first initiative appearing on the 1996 ballot. The state has also featured the most measures with three—two initiatives and one legislatively referred constitutional amendment. 

California Proposition 209 (1996) was sponsored by Ward Connerly, a former member of the University of California Board of Regents. Proposition 209 was approved with 55% of the vote and added Section 31 to the California Constitution’s Declaration of Rights to prohibit the state from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, and public contracting. 

CW Hundreds of students turned out for a protest against Prop 209 that started on the UCLA campus and ended in front of the federal building. Close to 20 students were arrested at the end of the protest. (CLARENCE WILLIAMS/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Connerly founded the American Civil Rights Institute to advocate for similar ballot measures to prohibit sex-based and race-based affirmative action in Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Washington. 

Connerly also sponsored California Proposition 54, which was defeated in 2003 with 64% of voters opposing it. It would have prohibited classifying prospective students, contractors, or employees in the operation of public education, public contracting, or public employment, and would have defined classifying as “the act of separating, sorting, or organizing by race, ethnicity, color, or national origin including, but not limited to, inquiring, profiling, or collecting such data on government forms.”

In 2020, California voters defeated Proposition 16, an amendment that would have repealed Proposition 209 (1996) with 57% voting against repealing the prohibition. Proposition 16 was a legislatively referred constitutional amendment introduced by Asm. Shirley Weber (D-79).

The U.S. Supreme Court released an order related to affirmative action on June 29, 2023. In Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard, the Court, in a 6-3 opinion, held that the affirmative action admissions programs of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Produced in association with Ballotpedia

Edited by Alberto Arellano and Joseph Donald Gunderson