America votes: Texans back policy of affirmative action

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Voters in the north-western state of Oregon decided by a large majority to retain a law permitting terminally ill patients to end their lives, reinforcing a provision approved three years ago but never implemented. In Houston in Texas, voters decided by a slightly slimmer majority not to end the 13-year-old policy of affirmative action.

Both these referendums - two of 43 state and local issue ballots held in different parts of the United States along with Tuesday's elections - had been closely watched because of their wider implications. At least nine other states are considering the introduction of "assisted suicide" laws, while the Houston vote on affirmative action was seen as a last opportunity for supporters of affirmative action to stall a growing backlash against the policy that favours women and ethnic minority candidates for public service jobs and grants.

Last year, Californians had voted by a large majority to end the state's affirmative action policy, and the Supreme Court this week allowed that decision to stand. At federal level the courts are expected to end affirmative action as a national policy, despite President Bill Clinton's strong support for it.

Although Houston was only the second area (after California) to vote on affirmative action, it was also seen as a last bastion of that policy. If a city with a non-white majority - approximately 36 per cent Hispanic, 22 per cent black and 6 per cent Asian - voted to abolish racial preferences, it was argued, there was almost no chance of affirmative action surviving anywhere else in the longer term.

The outgoing mayor of Houston, Bob Lanier, who had campaigned tirelessly for its retention, said of the 54 to 46 per cent vote: "I think this is a decent city with decent instincts ... if the city perceives a position as being racist, it will lose."

The vote in Oregon, which went 60-40 per cent in favour of keeping a regulated form of euthanasia, showed a bigger majority than the 51-49 per cent result three years ago. The pro-euthanasia position won, despite a fierce opposition campaign spearheaded by the Catholic church.