In an election result that astonished the country, Californians voted down an initiative that would have returned racial preferences to state college admissions, hiring, and contracting. In a margin of 56% to 44%, one of the most diverse and deepest blue states in the nation voted a resounding No to affirmative action.
Back in June when the California Assembly voted to place on the November ballot an initiative to repeal Prop. 209, the 1996 constitutional amendment that ended racial preferences at state institutions, many believed that its passage was a forgone conclusion. Consider the times: the nation was reeling from the death of George Floyd; cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles were wracked with nightly protests and looting; COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing throughout the state; all the while mandatory lockdowns were crippling the economy. In my May blog post I wrote, “call it the perfect storm or an alignment of the stars (depending on which side of the debate you sit)”, the environment provided the optimal conditions to repeal Prop 209.
Against this backdrop was a parade of big name supporters including Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer; Silicon Valley companies from Facebook to Twitter; and union stalwarts like the SEIU and the California Teachers Association. All total, supporters raised more than $20 million. Comparatively, the opposition had returning UC Regent Ward Connerly and $1.5 million total – the average cost of a house in San Francisco .
But neither a global pandemic, mass rioting, nor a war chest of millions of dollars was able to thwart the American ideal of equality. Polls before the vote had already previewed Prop. 16’s demise. A Public Policy of Institute of California survey found that Latino voters were evenly divided on Prop. 16. And among respondents who were neither white nor Latino, 40% supported it, but almost just as many, 38%, opposed it. And a UC Berkeley poll found that one third of African Americans were against Prop 16.
While the state’s progressive politicians and coastal elites may have bought into identity politics, most Californians didn’t. Nearly two-thirds of Californians voted for Joe Biden, which means that even many Democrats opposed Prop. 16.
Backers of the initiative attributed their loss to a presidential race that devoured all the attention, a crowded ballot, and lack of time to “educate” voters. But Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego and co-chair of the opposition campaign for Prop. 16, told the San Francisco Chronicle that most Californians recognized that resurrecting government affirmative action programs would be ‘poisonous,’ leading to preferential treatment for some and discrimination against other. “They don’t want to see California become a state sponsor of that,” Heriot said. “Our cause is just. That’s why we won.”
Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of the Pacific Research Institute