Calif. affirmative action ban is gaining support Among 89 referendums to be decided today, one shy of 1914 record

November 05, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With a late surge of support, a ballot measure that is intended to send a strong message against affirmative action goes before California voters today in this year's hottest fight over a voter-initiated idea.

Elsewhere, Arkansans who want to amend the U.S. Constitution to impose term limits on members of Congress got some help from the Supreme Court to keep that idea on the ballot.

And in eight states, the victims' rights movement -- aiming ultimately for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- will test interest in creating at the state level new rights for victims of crime.

Under those proposals, victims and their families would gain, among other things, a right to explain in court before a criminal is sentenced how the crime has affected their lives.

Across America, voters will act on a near-record rush of 89 ballot measures, one short of the record 90 ballot measures, set in 1914.

Although many of the measures are repeats of proposals that have circulated for years, some are new.

They include the assault on affirmative action in California and a broad "parents' rights amendment" in Colorado.

The parental-rights measure is envisioned as a forerunner to action by Congress to enable parents to resist sex education programs, access to abortion and other forms of official intervention in child-rearing.

None of the other measures this year ranks as high in visibility, and perhaps in impact, as California's Proposition 209.

It is the only ballot proposal that has become an issue in the presidential campaign: Bob Dole favors it, President Clinton opposes it.

The wording is simple: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting."

The measure, aimed mostly at race- or sex-based quotas, would wipe out minority hiring preferences and "set asides" for state contracts and would bar college admissions based on race or sex.

Affects government only

It is limited to government activity, however, and would not directly affect voluntary affirmative action by private companies.

While going far to decide the fate of affirmative action as a tool of government in California, the outcome in the largest state could echo in the nation's capital and in other states.

Passage of Proposition 209 would likely build support in Congress for a new attack on federal programs that assign public benefits on the basis of race, sex or national origin.

And anti-affirmative action forces in other states would likely be emboldened to follow California's lead.

The California measure showed signs of weakening support in the past week, with the measure leading by only 5 percentage points. But a new Field Poll over the weekend showed favorable reaction rising sharply, with 52 percent for, 38 opposed, and 10 undecided.

Another measure in California, showing majority support in recent polling, would legalize the use of marijuana for treating seriously ill patients.

But even if the measure is approved, its practical effect would be uncertain: The use of marijuana as medicine is banned by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and federal officials have warned that they would prosecute any doctor who defies that ban.

Easier to sue management

California has attracted the highest spending on any ballot measure anywhere this year.

The money was spent by both sides on a proposal to make it easier for stockholders to sue corporate management for mishandling company affairs.

And the popular notion that elected officials should be subject to term limits remains in vogue, with proposals in 13 states, even though the movement suffered a defeat in Congress this year and a setback in the Supreme Court two years ago.

The action in Congress and in the Supreme Court blocked term limits only for members of Congress, leaving states free to limit their state and local officials' terms in office. Even so, congressional term limits remain the chief goal of the activists.

Needs an amendment

The only way around the setbacks would be to write congressional term limits directly into the U.S. Constitution.

This year, supporters have taken that dare: They have fashioned a ballot proposal for most of the states that are voting on term limits to instruct the states' members of Congress to back such an amendment or face voter retaliation.

Arkansas was one of the states that decided to take that approach, only to be rebuffed last month by the state Supreme Court.

The state court ruled that Arkansas voters have no power to try to initiate a constitutional amendment by a ballot measure. It ordered officials to take Amendment 9 off the Arkansas ballot.

But on Saturday, the U.S. Supreme Court restored the amendment to the state ballot, leaving its constitutionality to be considered in a future appeal.

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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