SACRAMENTO — In the end, rapidly changing demographics and a summer of protest over racial justice did little to sway the California electorate’s opinion on affirmative action.
Proposition 16, which would have reinstated the ability to consider race and sex in government hiring and contracting and in public university admissions, was defeated, upholding a ban that voters first approved 24 years ago. By Wednesday, the measure trailed by 12 percentage points, a slightly larger margin than the one in the 1996 election in which California outlawed many affirmative action programs. The measure was winning only five Bay Area counties and Los Angeles.
The “yes” campaign, which vastly outspent opponents and drew high-profile endorsements from across the political spectrum, was still assessing Wednesday what happened and whether there was another path to challenging a ban that some activists have been working for years to overturn.
“Both in California and across the country, we’re not witnessing a repudiation of Trumpism that we’d like to see,” said Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and a co-chair of the campaign. “There’s a lot of work to do to help enlist more folks who are championing the promotion of policies that really fix structural racism.”
Proposition 209, which was pushed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, passed in 1996 with nearly 55% of the vote, making California the first state to prohibit the consideration of race and sex in public employment, contracting and education. Eight more states followed with similar laws, none of which voters have ever repealed. But the issue remains controversial among critics who believe the law has prevented the state from eliminating obstacles that hold back women and people of color.
When supporters introduced the concept for Prop. 16 in March, they acknowledged that persuading voters to approve it would be difficult. But they were optimistic they could ride a surge of liberal opposition to President Trump to victory. California is a far more Democratic state than it was in 1996, and a more racially diverse one as well — white people now make up 36% of the population, down from 52% in 1996, while Latinos are the largest ethnic group, at 39% of the state.
The issue was amplified this summer amid a national reckoning over racism following the death of George Floyd. Just weeks after Floyd was killed in May when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, state lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to place the measure on the ballot.
But those shifts have not considerably changed public opinion. Gail Heriot, a law professor at University of San Diego and co-chair of the opposition campaign to Prop. 16, said most voters do not subscribe to “identity politics” or cast their ballots based on their race or sex. She said most Californians recognized that resurrecting government affirmative action programs would be “poisonous,” leading to preferential treatment for some and discrimination against others.
“They don’t want to see California become a state sponsor of that,” Heriot said. “Our cause is just. That’s why we won.”
Proponents point to political factors that they believe hurt their chances, including a ballot summary that suggested the measure would repeal protections against discrimination.
Assemblymember David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat who supported Prop. 16, said advocates ran out of time to educate voters during an election in which public attention was gobbled up by the presidential race and record spending on several other initiatives. He said some incorrectly believed that the campaign was trying to bring back racial quotas, which have been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, rather than, for example, programs to recruit more Latinos into health care jobs.
“There was significant voter confusion about what modern affirmative action could look like, and the opposition ran on fear-mongering and confusion,” Chiu said.
The question of what effect Prop. 16 would have on higher education was at the center of the debate, particularly among Chinese Americans, many of whom feared Prop. 16 would result in fewer members of the community being admitted to the University of California. Some were galvanized politically for the first time and led the opposition to the measure.
UC endorsed Prop. 16 this summer, noting that Black and Latino enrollment remains below the proportion of UC-eligible high school graduates in both of those groups, particularly at the most selective campuses. Asian Americans, by contrast, account for a larger percentage of students.
Anthony Lising Antonio, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education who studies access and equity in higher education, said that as a college degree has become more necessary for workers and admissions have gotten more competitive, people have come to see universities as less of a public benefit.
“Access to the UC is a scarce good. People are very keen on who’s getting in and who’s not getting in,” he said. “People may think, ‘Well, why do we need to address these social issues through higher education?’”
In a statement Wednesday, UC affirmed its commitment to attracting a diverse student body and expanding enrollment of underrepresented groups.
“The failure of Proposition 16 means barriers will remain in place to the detriment of many students, families and California at large,” said John Pérez, chair of the Board of Regents. “We will not accept inequality on our campuses and will continue addressing the inescapable effects of racial and gender inequity.”