At a time when voters could elect the country's first African-American president, three states also will decide in November whether to end affirmative action programs that supporters say help historically oppressed minority groups, but that critics say cause reverse discrimination against whites and sometimes Asians.
The ballot measures to end racial and gender preferences now pending in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska would block public universities from considering race or sex when deciding admissions, and state and local governments would do the same in hiring and awarding contracts.
Similar initiatives in California, Washington and most recently Michigan caused an uproar from civil rights advocates, but all were overwhelmingly passed, killing their affirmative action programs.
Weighing in from the presidential campaign trail, Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain said he supports his state's anti-affirmative action ballot, leading to charges of flip-flopping, because a decade ago, McCain opposed a similar plan in the Legislature. Democrat Sen. Barack Obama, whose father is African and mother is white, said he opposes the measures, but said he does not consider affirmative action a long-term solution. He suggested that such programs should eventually focus on class, not race.
Ward Connerly, the initiatives' author and driving force, said Obama's success is proof that affirmative action is no longer necessary. "It's becoming increasingly difficult to argue that there is institutional racism and institutional sexism given the phenomenal success of Senators Obama and (Hillary) Clinton," he said.
The federal government first created affirmative action in the 1960s, requiring contractors and subcontractors to expand job opportunities for women and minority groups including blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. State governments and colleges followed suit. In higher education, though, Asians weren't among the minorities who benefited. Some research has shown that Asians are overrepresented at colleges with a disproportionately large enrollment, resulting in higher academic requirements for those applicants.
Connerly founded the American Civil Rights Institute to challenge affirmative action programs after successfully leading a drive in 1996 to end racial and gender preferences in California. His group later spurred the movements in Washington and Michigan, as well.
This year, they gathered thousands more signatures than necessary to get the initiatives on the ballot in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska. So far, polls show the measures would easily pass.
The question is whether they will make the ballot. A Michigan-based group called By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) is leading a legal challenge to the ballot measures in Arizona, claiming that petition gatherers misled voters about the intent of the measure and that many of the circulators were not from Arizona, which violates state law. The initiatives in Colorado and Nebraska are also being challenged under similar charges of voter fraud or misleading ballot language.
"Most white voters are not overt racists and they wouldn't think of themselves as racists, but in the privacy of the ballot, they will vote to protect white privilege," said BAMN national coordinator Donna Stern. "The only way to defeat the measures is by keeping them off the ballot."
Working with local groups, BAMN succeeded in doing that in Missouri and Oklahoma, the other two states that Connerly hoped would be part of what he calls his "Super Tuesday for Equal Rights." In both states, BAMN accused the signature-gatherers of lying to voters about the intent of the measure. In Missouri, BAMN supporters aggressively trailed signature gatherers as they approached voters to explain that the measure would end affirmative action programs. The initiatives in both states failed to get enough signatures.
After the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 took effect in California, the numbers of black, Latino and Native American students dropped throughout the University of California system. In recent years, those numbers have inched up to surpass pre-initiative levels throughout the system.
But the numbers of under-represented minorities remain low at the system's flagship schools, UC Berkeley and UCLA. During the last school year, UCLA enrolled just over 200 black freshmen out of a class of more than 4,500 students. That was double the previous year, when the school enrolled 103 black freshmen out of a class of more than 4,800, a 30-year low.
In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a mixed ruling that struck down the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions process, which awarded bonus points to applicants based on race, but it upheld the law school's admissions process that used race as one of several factors in considering prospective students.
That led a handful of colleges - including Ohio State Universityandthe University of Massachusetts at Amherst - to drop their point-based race-conscious admissions systems. Schools also began ending scholarships aimed at specific races.
But a few colleges used the ruling to re-introduce race considerations in admissions. Last year, the University of Wisconsin system announced that it would begin examining race and income when deciding admissions.
The University of Texas at Austin already offered admission to all students, including those from largely minority schools, who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class which filled about 80 percent of the enrollment. After the ruling, the school began considering race to fill its remaining spots. But UT's new policy is being challenged in the courts, with plaintiffs arguing that the school's 10-percent rule already ensures a diverse campus.
Most colleges, though, overhauled admissions policies in the wake of the 2003 ruling to look at more "holistic" factors that the Supreme Court referred to, such as targeting high schools or neighborhoods that were underrepresented in enrollment and considering whether a student was the first person in the family to attend college.
The University of Michigan's undergraduate school instituted similar policies, using race as one factor. That ended after 58 percent of Michigan voters passed the anti-affirmative action Proposition 2 in 2006.
Should this year's ballot measures pass, they may not carry much impact on undergraduate admissions at the public universities in Arizona and Nebraska, which look only at factors like standardized test scores, grade point average, class ranking and course load. In Colorado, the University of Colorado at Boulder considers gender and race, along with other factors like income, whether another family member attended the school, whether a student is the first in the family to attend college and what region of the state the applicant is from. Most graduate and professional programs in the states do consider race in admissions, however.
In January, the University of Nebraska board of regents announced it opposed the measure, saying it could affect outreach programs that encourage minorities to attend the university and enter certain professions.
One program the school fears is at risk is the Virginia-Nebraska Alliance ; the University of Nebraska Medical Center partners with schools in Virginia, including five historically black colleges, to bring students from these schools to the Nebraska university's research labs for 12 weeks, making them better candidates if they apply for medical schools.
"We have major issues of health disparities between minorities and non-minorities, particularly in the African-American community where we have epidemics of STDs and strokes," said Ruben Pamies, the medical school's vice chancellor for academic affairs. "We can't eliminate a system that at least provides an opportunity to be looked at."
For the next school year, the first in which Michigan admissions is fully feeling the effects of Proposition 2, the University of Michigan is projecting that 10.47 percent of its freshman class will be black, Latino or Native American. That's just a slight drop from last year, when the three minority groups made up 10.86 percent of the freshman class. For that class, the university operated under its previous affirmative action policy for the first half of the admissions season, and under Proposition 2's rules for the other half.
The university attributes its success in holding onto diversity to an all-out effort on the part of the admissions office and officials. Faculty members and deans called or sent personal e-mails to accepted minority students, school representatives visited underrepresented neighborhoods and officials met with representatives from universities in California and Washington for advice about how to avoid a steep drop in minority students.
Their main advice, said Ted Spencer, the school's director of undergraduate admissions, was "you needed the entire university to be behind diversity, and that diversity still must remain a goal of the university."