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Battles over affirmative action often depend on words. If a referendum or a ballot speaks of race or gender "preferences," voters usually react negatively, but "affirmative action" almost always draws a warm response. In 1998, voters in Houston seemed ready to pass city antipreference legislation, but the mayor and city council altered the wording so it asked, "Shall the Charter of the City of Houston be amended to end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities?"
Voters said no, but a judge ruled that the new wording misled the public, so he threw out the results. In Michigan, a current battle over wording may have ended in compromise. This fall, state voters will address the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a version of the antipreference measures passed in California and Washington State. The proposed wording, acceptable to many major campaigners, pro and con, will ask voters if they wish to ban "affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment" based on race, color, gender, or ethnicity. So the buzzwords of both sides may make it onto the ballot.
The Board of State Canvassers, expected to meet by January 20, must still approve the language.