LANSING, Mich. — Two members of a state elections panel face contempt of court charges after refusing last week to ratify a ballot measure that seeks to disallow the collection of racial data by public agencies.
The measure was placed on the ballot Tuesday by the Michigan secretary of state and voters will decide in November 2006. It mirrors a proposal that California voters approved in 1996.
The Michigan measure says the state and schools “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 two officials, Doyle O’Connor and Paul Mitchell, are part of Michigan’s four-member Board of Canvassers, a ratifying panel that was ordered by the state Court of Appeals earlier this month to approve the initiative.
But during a fractious board meeting last week, the two refused to approve the measure after being taunted by a group of unruly protesters — mostly high school students bused in from the Detroit area — who disrupted the meeting. The other two board members fulfilled their legal obligation and voted in favor of the move.
News reports said that the students overturned a table, made obscene gestures, and told a black board member to “be a black man.” One protester was arrested for disorderly conduct.
In a memo this week to the state Attorney General’s Office, Mr. O’Connor and Mr. Mitchell said the meeting was improperly adjourned and ended in confusion.
They said they would support a move to “correct” the record of the meeting to show they voted to follow the court order and certify the petitions from the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.
In their memo, the two also said that the meeting was “raucous … which will happen in a democratic society, especially when the people rightly perceive that the normal rule of law is being circumvented, and especially on an issue as inherently divisive as the country’s long-delayed response to the legacy of 250 years of slavery followed by 100 years of segregation … .”
The youths who disrupted last week’s board meeting were brought there by a group called By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), which claims, along with other opponents of the measure, that the signatures on the petition to put it to a vote were fraudulently obtained by leading signers to believe the measure supported affirmative action.
A Jan. 11 hearing by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission will begin an investigation of the petition-gathering process.
Billing itself as part of a “new civil rights movement,” BAMN has battled the initiative from the start. The group is composed of mostly young people, said Shanta Driver, who is national director of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and to Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary. She defended the two rogue officials and compared the reported disruption at the Dec. 14 meeting to a “high school dance or a Christmas party.”
“It was a peaceful, nonviolent protest,” Miss Driver said. “It was largely in word, people chanting, and it was absolutely the right thing for these young people to do.”
She maintains that if the measure were to be put to a vote and approved democratically, “it will mean that people will be denied opportunity to attend any number of state universities … it also means that any program that has succeeded in integrating this society will be challenged.”
The state appellate court here, meanwhile, promises that contempt proceedings against the two officials who failed to heed its order “will be the subject of another order from this court,” according to a statement from the body issued Tuesday.