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Ward Connerly Dealt A Loss in Colorado; Nebraska reviews new law

Colorado voters narrowly rejected banning affirmative action at public colleges and universities. The measure would have made it illegal for state government to consider race, ethnicity or gender in education, hiring or contracting decisions.

Just over 50 percent of voters opposed the measure, while 49.4 voted for it, according to local media reports. Election officials just Friday finished counting ballots from Tuesday’s vote.

Young people were a key factor in the campaign to convince voters against approving the ballot measure, pushed through by California businessman Ward Connerly, who backed a similar measure that passed last week in Nebraska.

“Young people turned out in record numbers against this measure, especially on college and university campuses,” said Carmen Berkley, president of the United States Student Association, a group that organized against the initiative. The measure was defeated by a two-to-one margin in areas with large student populations, according to the association.

A wide coalition of labor, education, religious, business and media organizations opposed the ban. “We’re all very excited. I think we’ve proven here in Colorado that Ward Connerly can be defeated and when voters know the truth about his initiative they’ll knock it down,” says Jessie Ulibarri, economic justice program director for Colorado Progressive Coalition, a group that opposed the measure.

Connerly’s affirmative action bans have passed previous years in California, Washington and Michigan. Nebraska passed a law prohibiting race and gender from being taken into consideration in state hiring and promotion.

Nebraska’s educational institutions, cities and counties are beginning to scour their programs to see if they violate a ban on race- and gender-based affirmative action approved last week by voters.

At Southeast Community College in Nebraska, Jose J. Soto may have to change his title: vice president of affirmative action.

The ban might force Southeast Community College to cease or change its partnership with a national association that promotes equity for women in community colleges, Soto says. And a program designed to boost female enrollment in technology classes may have to be dropped.

At the University of Nebraska, administrators are expected to review a wide range of programs and policies aimed at boosting diversity — including a math camp for high school girls, Native American Day, the recruitment of foreign students and a law college policy that uses race as a factor in deciding which students to admit.

“We know we need to look at programs where race or gender or national origin are involved,” university president J.B. Milliken said.

The Nebraska constitutional amendment prohibits public agencies from giving preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex or ethnicity when hiring and performing such tasks as awarding contracts and granting scholarships.

The ban passed with almost 58 percent of the vote. A similar measure in Colorado was defeated.

The League of Nebraska Municipalities is reviewing how the amendment might affect hundreds of local governments across the state, executive director Lynn Rex says. Some federal grants, such as those for affordable housing, are tied to affirmative action, she said.

“There’s the potential for large consequences that we just don’t know yet,” Rex says.

Milliken and other university officials are concerned that Nebraska’s status as one of a handful of states to pass an affirmative action ban could project a cold image, hindering recruitment efforts.

‘It’s important that we, while complying with the law, make every effort to provide broad access to the University of Nebraska,” he says.

Like Milliken, Soto feels the amendment won’t dismantle all efforts to increase diversity.

“Affirmative action is something often done on the front end of the hiring process to make sure you have a job description that doesn’t limit candidates, and that you have a recruitment process,” Soto says. “Ninety percent of affirmative action has nothing to do with … using race or gender to make a hiring decision. It’s to provide open access to opportunities.”

Ward Connerly, the Black businessman and former University of California regent who orchestrated the effort to ban affirmative action in Nebraska, says the win could give momentum to his state-by-state campaign against affirmative action.

But the Election Day victory for Connerly and his supporters in Nebraska is being challenged.

Opponents of the ban have filed a lawsuit arguing that petition signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot were gathered using a “pattern of fraud and illegality.” If successful, the lawsuit could invalidate the results of Tuesday’s vote.

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