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Affirmative action proposal loses support
Poll shows ban faces challenge


July 18, 2006

Michigan voters' disdain for race and gender-based affirmative action appears to have softened in the three years since the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the practice in the University of Michigan admissions cases.

According to the Free Press-Local 4 Michigan poll, a plurality of likely voters (48%) said they oppose a constitutional amendment to ban the use of race and gender-based preferences in government hiring and contracting and in university admissions. The proposal, known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, was favored by 43%, with 9% undecided.

Voter sentiment is divided along lines of race and gender. Men favor the proposal, 52% to 42%; women oppose it, 53% to 36%. White voters are almost evenly split, 44% in favor and 46% opposed. Black voters oppose the measure nearly 3 to 1, with 72% opposed and 28% in favor.

The numbers contrast with most polling done on the issue during the long period when the U-M case was being hotly contested in court and in the court of public opinion. A Free Press survey conducted in February 2003, shortly before the Supreme Court ruling, found that Michiganders opposed U-M's affirmative action admissions policy 63% to 27%.

The Free Press-Local 4 Michigan poll is based on interviews with 632 likely voters in the November election. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points. The poll was conducted July 7-12 by Selzer & Co. Inc. of Des Moines, Iowa.

As recently as March, a poll commissioned by the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics had the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative ballot question ahead 55% to 36%.

J. Ann Selzer, who conducted the poll, said it is possible that opposition to the use of race- and gender-based affirmative action has waned as the public's attention has moved elsewhere. Still, a vigorous campaign could restore old fault lines, she said.

Trisha Stein, spokeswoman for One United Michigan -- the campaign to defeat the proposal -- said she believes the shift reflects "folks ... starting to understand that the consequences of this proposal go a lot farther than the University of Michigan. This proposal is absolute."

Interviews with voters suggest they're not really sure what the proposal is. None of the Free Press poll respondents asked to comment for this report said they had followed the issue closely since the U-M case was resolved. All of the respondents said they would definitely vote in November.

Karl Dahlke, a 46-year-old computer programmer who lives in Troy, said he didn't know the proposal would be on the November ballot, and had not followed the rancorous battle in and out of the courtroom over the petition drive that placed it there.

But Dahlke said from what he understands about the proposal today, "it seems fairly heavy-handed." He plans to vote no.

"Heavy-handed proposals on any side usually make me wary," he said.

Pollster Selzer said it's not surprising that opinion is mixed on the issue. "People see the pluses and minuses," she said. "They think it's necessary, but they think it's not supposed to last forever."

Susan Talmer, a 57-year-old homemaker from Novi, reflects that ambivalence. Talmer said she will probably vote against the constitutional amendment because she thinks "everybody should get an equal chance."

But Talmer also said some of the practices justified under affirmative action "really bother me; the program needs to be tweaked."

One United Michigan's Stein said she believes a six-week TV advertising campaign, sponsored by a nonprofit arm of the opposition campaign, has helped convince women that gender-based preferences should be kept.

Sandra Wood, a 69-year-old General Motors Corp. retiree from Mt. Morris near Flint, is not among them. Wood said she believes affirmative action has been abused to hire and promote unqualified people.

"Everyone should be given an equal chance, and then they're on their own," she said.

But Wood's view of the proposal also demonstrates how difficult it can be to win approval of an amendment to the constitution, even with voters who agree with the principle.

Wood said she told the poll interviewer she planned to vote no on affirmative action, believing that represented her views. But supporters of the ban actually will have to vote "yes" in November. Jennifer Gratz, one of the plaintiffs in the U-M lawsuits and director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative campaign, said she expects confusion to continue into the fall.

"Until people sit down and read the language, the numbers will bounce around," Gratz said. "I think people will pay more attention as the election gets closer."

Contact DAWSON BELL at 313-222-6604 or

Copyright © 2006 Detroit Free Press Inc.


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