Last year, Michigan voters went to the polls and found a proposal to define marriage. Some had read newspaper editorials calling it divisive and damaging. Some had heard their union had opposed it and mainstream politicians had distanced themselves from it. But most knew very little about it.

Angela Cesere

It sounded reasonable, though. Marriage between one man and one woman, just as it’s been since the beginning of time. No need to think about what that ambiguous phrase “marriage or similar union” meant.

Next year, Michigan voters will probably go to the polls and find a proposal to ban affirmative action. Some will have read the newspaper editorials that will no doubt condemn it as divisive and damaging.  Some will have heard that their union and corporate employer oppose it and many mainstream politicians have distanced themselves from it. But most will know very little about it.

It will sound reasonable, though. Outlawing discrimination and guaranteeing equal opportunity. No need to think about what that ambiguous phrase “preferential treatment” means.

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative isn’t on the 2006 ballot yet, but I have little doubt it will be. The group convinced more than enough people to sign its petitions. If it fails this time, its small but patient corps of supporters have plenty of time to try again, and the scenario I’ve just described will still play out in November 2006. Voters who haven’t bothered to educate themselves will make a decision based on the associations triggered by the ballot language.

Maybe I shouldn’t assume the ignorance of the electorate. After all, the initiative presents a unique opportunity for public discourse on a crucial piece of public policy — whether to use tax dollars in ways that benefit racial groups differently.

Until now, Michigan’s affirmative action debate has played out in courtrooms. That setting limited the debate to a few voices, staying remarkably on message — diversity, diversity, diversity vs. quota, quota, quota. Released into the public, the debate could broaden.

For example, it could provide room for those who say we need affirmative action to mend the discrimination against minorities woven into our historical and social fabric. That’s a more compelling argument than saying we need diversity because it makes us feel good. It could also make room for those who argue racism won’t end until government stops assigning people to racial categories and judging them accordingly. I’d say that’s more compelling than pretending white people are somehow systematically discriminated against.

The only way MCRI will spark such a debate is if people learn what affirmative action means and take an informed position, as thousands of University students have. Bombarding them with campaign commercials a month before the election won’t do the trick. Only a long-term campaign of honest information will allow people to evaluate the state’s methods of brewing diversity.

Fortunately, we have two years.

So start now. The state of Michigan has two years to explain the policies it uses to create a diverse body of employees and students. To make TV commercials putting them into easily understandable form. To set up debates across the state between supporters and opponents of affirmative action.

Campaign finance laws prohibit state institutions from campaigning for or against a ballot measure, but nothing prevents them from explaining their own policies or presenting both sides of a controversy. Nothing keeps public officials from making this their chief topic of conversation, as University President Mary Sue Coleman has done.

By bringing forums to campuses, the University and its fellows across the state can educate voters in some of Michigan’s biggest cities. The students who establish such forums must invite voices from all sides if they are to draw more than the people who have already formed their opinions.

The University makes available plenty of factual information about its admissions and the implications of MCRI. But that’s seen mostly by the people who visit its website. Lawyers worry about going further than that and running afoul of campaign finance laws.

“We do not intend nor can I envision us doing some sort of media blitz or campaign,” said Sally Churchill, the University’s assistant general counsel.

“I’m not sure there’s a whole lot more we can do. People have to understand that if they want to defeat this or to pass it, they can’t look to U of M to lead the charge.”

Still, with such a stake in the issue, surely it is worth the legal risk for state universities to join together and buy ads explaining their admissions processes and dispelling myths. No need to mention MCRI; they could be more like the Big Ten ads that promote their schools’ sportsmanship than campaign ads. You know, “good sports make great fans?”

There’s still some hope that good information will make great voters.

Schrader can be reached at jtschrad@umich.edu

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