The movement to eliminate race- and gender-conscious programs in Michigan advanced substantially last week when a statewide campaign announced it had collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to put the issue on the 2006 ballot.
But even as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative basks in its achievement, its opponents are already planning a spate of attacks to thwart it.
Numerous challenges face those who oppose MCRI’s ban of policies based on race, ethnicity and sex in public education, employment and contracting. MCRI has collected more than 500,000 signatures, well above the roughly 320,000 it needs to get the issue on the ballot and the greatest number ever submitted for a proposal to amend Michigan’s constitution.
As of now, the initiative also has the public’s support. Public opinion polls, including those conducted by The Detroit Free Press and EPIC/MRA, a Lansing-based polling firm, show that about 60 percent of Michiganders would ban race preferences.
The opposition — consisting mostly of BAMN and the coalition Citizens for a United Michigan — has a little less than two years to topple MCRI, in part by convincing Michigan voters of the proposal’s potentially damaging effects.
Opponents of MCRI said they face an uphill battle.
“Any time in American history when you’ve given the American electorate the chance to vote for black equality or, conversely, to vote for white privilege, and you have a majority white state, white privilege usually wins out,” BAMN national spokeswoman Shanta Driver said.
“We’re going to challenge them every step of the way,” she said. “We’re going to be doing an all-out, full-fledged national campaign to defeat this initiative.”
For now, MCRI and its challengers are focusing on the lengthy process of verifying the half-million signatures submitted last week. The Michigan secretary of state’s office will perform the official count, which could take until April or early May to complete, said Kelly Chesney, the secretary’s spokeswoman.
The state will check each signature and petition using several tests, including whether the signer is a registered Michigan resident, has signed the petition only once and has signed it within 180 days of MCRI’s filing date last week.
MCRI’s opponents are allowed to request their own copies of the petitions, something that both BAMN and United Michigan are looking into. Once they have copies, they are allowed to conduct their own independent count or take their grievances to court for any number of reasons, Chesney said.
But the volume of MCRI’s submission will make any challenges very difficult, Chesney added.
Because its opposition has numerous opportunities to challenge its petitions, MCRI is keeping abreast of their actions. Over the next few months, however, the campaign will lie low and plan for the long haul.
“We don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” MCRI director of outreach Chetly Zarko said. “We’re going to be as active as we can.”
But Zarko added that the campaign will “take a breather for the next couple of months.”
“We really do need to sit down and plan,” he said.
In addition to the technical errors common in verifying petitions, BAMN claims that MCRI committed more significant errors that deceived the people of Michigan.
“The signature gatherers lied to people about the nature of the ballot proposition in order to get signatures,” Driver said. Some signers, BAMN claims, were told that the proposal adds “civil rights protections” to the state constitution, even though the constitution already guarantees equality regardless of race, sex and religion. Driver also alleges that some of the signature gatherers — most of whom were paid to do so — were not Michigan residents, which would invalidate those petitions.
Whether these arguments are legally viable has yet to be determined.
Undoubtedly, there will also be a legal battle over how the ballot question is worded. Opponents allege that the phrase “race preferences” is a loaded term that disguises MCRI’s true intentions: to end affirmative action. According to United Michigan’s own polling, 55 percent of the public opposes MCRI when told it would “ban affirmative action programs.”
If challenging the petitions falls through, both campaigns will have to work to sway public opinion to their side.
“We’ve got a lot of educating to do,” United Michigan spokesman David Waymire said.
“(MCRI) is a massive intrusion in Michigan’s ability to control its local and state government,” he added, explaining that the proposal could affect programs that recruit women for government contracting or white men to diversify predominantly black police forces. Its influence, he said, extends far beyond the University’s campus.
If MCRI is successful, the organization may move on to target other states for similar initiatives. Ward Connerly, the University of California regent who started MCRI, has signaled his intention to move on to smaller states, like Nebraska, if he succeeds here.
Over the coming months, United Michigan will put up programs and debates to educate the public. As November 2006 approaches, its efforts will resemble a political campaign, and the group will take out advertisements to more vigorously push its agenda.
BAMN will launch “Operation King’s Dream,” a reference to Martin Luther King Jr. BAMN believes MCRI will harm minorities by lowering minority enrollment.
BAMN will enlist high school and college students to go door to door throughout the state and try to educate the public on the issue.
“This is going to be Michigan’s Freedom Summer,” Driver said, referencing the attempts in the early 1960s to desegregate the south and politically empower blacks.