Car tabs, affirmative action and Larry Gossett's legacy: This election is about more than Seattle City Hall

Two ballot measures will decide the future of affirmative action and car-tab fees in Washington state. Meanwhile, a local legend fights to keep his seat.

In this photo taken Oct. 11, 2019, Linda Yang of the “Let People Vote” campaign is seen at a demonstration against I-1000 in Bellevue. More than two decades after Washington voters banned affirmative action, the question of whether one's minority status should be considered as a contributing factor in state employment, contracting and admission to public colleges and universities is back on the ballot. The Nov. 5 vote comes months after the Legislature approved Initiative 1000 in April. Opponents of the measure collected enough signatures to force a referendum, Referendum 88. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Washington state voters are being asked for not one, but two do-overs on their ballots this general election. The results could indicate how much Washington politics has changed over the past two decades — or, conversely, how much voters' sentiments on the hot-button issues of car-tab taxes and racial discrimination remain the same.

One statewide ballot measure, Referendum 88, will decide whether Washington will reverse a 21-year-old ban on using affirmative action in public hiring, contracting and university admissions.

The other statewide measure, Initiative 976, will determine whether to slash car-tab fees across the state to a flat $30, a debate that dates back to 1999, when voters first approved a similar measure.

If Washington voters approve R-88 (also known as I-1000), race and ethnicity could once again be used in decisions made by government agencies when it comes to hiring and education programs.

Approval of I-976, meanwhile, would have serious implications for Sound Transit 3, the transit and light rail package Puget Sound voters approved three years ago.

These two measures are the biggest issues swirling in the political realm outside of races for the Seattle City Council, where several competitive district-level contests are sucking up much of the oxygen.

In another heated race, voters will decide whether to replace a longtime King County Council member who has has held his position for a quarter-century, but who lagged far behind in the August primary.

Here is a quick overview of what’s at stake in Tuesday's election.

Will voters restore affirmative action?

Earlier this year, the state Legislature voted to pass I-1000, a citizen-sponsored measure that would restore affirmative action in government programs across the state.

Soon afterward, however, opponents of the measure collected enough signatures to launch a referendum effort, putting the question before voters this fall.

Approval of R-88 — and by extension, of I-1000 — would allow characteristics such as race, sex, ethnicity or veteran status to once again play a role in decisions regarding government contracting, hiring and public university admissions. The initiative specifies that none of those characteristics can be used as the sole reason to select a less qualified candidate over a more qualified candidate, however.

If voters approve Referendum 88, then I-1000 would go into effect as the Legislature intended. Voting no on R-88 will block the measure and maintain the existing affirmative-action ban, which dates back to voters’ approval of Initiative 200 in 1998.

So, over the past 21 years, have voters changed their minds about affirmative action? Ben Anderstone, a political consultant who primarily works for Democratic campaigns, said I-200 passed with “a pretty comfortable margin for affirmative action opponents” back in 1998.

At the same time, he said, college-educated voters have shifted their views about race somewhat over the past two decades, which could mean that the vote will turn out differently this time around.

Others aren’t so sure. Crystal Fincher, a political consultant who often works with Democratic candidates, said that although Washington voters have shown themselves to be progressive on many issues, such as gun control and gay marriage, the same may not prove true when it comes to topics such as race and affirmative action.

She noted that it took a historic number of women and people of color being elected to Washington’s Legislature for lawmakers to take up the issue this year, even though Democrats have had supermajorities in Olympia in many of the years since I-200 took effect.

“Just being a Democrat or just being someone who calls yourself a progressive is not necessarily indicative of support,” Fincher said.

How fed up are people with their car tabs?

Perennial initiative promoter Tim Eyman is back on the ballot this fall with a new measure, I-976. The initiative would roll back a large portion of the car-tab fees used to pay for extending light rail and bus service as part of the voter-approved Sound Transit 3. It also would eliminate other vehicle registration fees used to pay for transportation needs in about 60 cities across the state.

All told, state officials estimate that government agencies would lose about $4 billion in revenue for transportation projects over the next six years if I-976 passes. Sound Transit says the measure would cost the agency $20 billion through 2041.

Yet in the past, measures to reduce car-tab fees have proved to be popular in Washington state. Voters approved similar statewide initiatives sponsored by Eyman in 1999 and 2002, for instance.

Additional measures to cut or reduce taxes also have had a high success rate among Washington voters, said pollster Stuart Elway.

This time, however, a great deal of money is being spent to oppose I-976, which could have an effect not seen in those past years, Elway said.

“I don’t think we’ve seen this kind of a campaign against them before, that is pretty visible,” Elway said Monday. Voters in the Puget Sound region may also balk at cutting funding for transit and light rail projects that they themselves approved just three years ago, he said.

Businesses such as Amazon and Microsoft have banded together to donate about $3 million to the campaign to defeat I-976, a measure they argue would hurt the region’s transportation infrastructure and economy.

Even so, Fincher, the political consultant, said that the campaign to fight I-976 is in “an underdog position.”

“Voters have consistently voted in favor of either $30 car tabs or lower car tabs statewide,” Fincher said. “It would be pretty monumental for them to buck that trend.”

Chad Minnick, a Republican campaign consultant, agreed.

“Every single time people have voted for $30 car tabs, the government and big business and the labor establishment has said the sky was going to fall … and the sky never fell,” Minnick said.

Is 25 years too long to hold the same office?

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett has been a force in local politics for decades. This year, however, the well-known civil rights activist is on the verge of losing the county council seat he has held for 25 years.

In the August primary, Gossett found himself down 19 percentage points against a political newcomer, Girmay Zahilay, a 32-year-old lawyer and co-founder of a nonprofit. Zahilay is challenging Gossett for the seat representing the county council’s District 2, which includes the Central District, Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, Seward Park, Skyway, the University of Washington, Fremont, Ravenna and Laurelhurst.

Anderstone said that he doesn’t see Gossett’s trailing numbers in the primary as a repudiation of the 74-year-old incumbent. Rather, Anderstone said the results were more of a sign that people are intrigued by Zahilay, whom he called “exciting and charismatic.”

Fincher said the primary election results also reflected how the district has changed. Many newer residents in District 2 might not be familiar with Gossett’s record as a civil rights champion; meanwhile, Zahilay has run “a great campaign,” she said.

“I don’t know that Larry has campaigned to the same level. I think in the primary he did not,” Fincher said.

Tuesday’s results will determine whether Gossett’s time on the council has run its course.

By the way, those advisory votes? They don’t do anything

Voters who open their ballot will see 12 statewide advisory votes, each talking about taxes the Legislature imposed earlier this year “without a vote of the people.”

But although voters are asked whether to “repeal” or “maintain” each tax, the result will be the same no matter which way they vote: Those taxes aren’t going anywhere.

The advisory votes stem from another Eyman ballot measure, I-960, which passed in 2007. Critics say the advisory votes are useless and confusing, but Eyman has defended them as a way to help inform the public about the tax measures lawmakers approved.

Minnick, the Republican consultant, said it is wishful thinking to believe that lawmakers will pay attention to the advisory votes, even if a majority of voters say they dislike the tax increases lawmakers imposed. “They know taxes are unpopular, and they passed them anyway,” he said.

In any case, vote yea, nay or leave the advisory votes blank on your ballot — it won’t make a difference, one way or another.

This post has been updated to reflect how much Sound Transit estimates I-976 would cost the agency. 

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.