OAKLAND — California voters rejected Proposition 16, a major blow to Democrats and social justice advocates who hoped a national reckoning on racial inequality following the police killing of George Floyd would translate into a long-sought repeal of the state’s affirmative action ban.
The measure placed on the ballot by state lawmakers was losing 44-56 after nearly 12 million votes were counted overnight.
Background: Public entities have been barred from taking race, gender or other personal identifications into consideration during admissions, hiring and awarding of contracts since 1996. That year, voters passed Proposition 209, a measure supported by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and former University of California Regent Ward Connerly.
The law is a holdover of conservative policy in a state that has since elected a Democratic supermajority, and it has been blamed for racial enrollment disparities at the UC and California State University systems and a decline in public contracts awarded to businesses owned by women and people of color.
State lawmakers placed Prop. 16 on the ballot, believing they had a unique window of opportunity to repeal Prop. 209. A strong majority of California residents said they backed the Black Lives Matter movement after a summer of racial justice activism in response to the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis.
Despite facing little opposition and polling that showed a significant majority of Californians believed racial and gender equality were among the most pressing issues this election, the Yes on 16 campaign failed to make significant inroads with voters. The campaign lost despite having support from the Democratic establishment and raising $31 million from liberal donors and foundations, compared to $1.6 million against.
Supporters struggled to garner attention in a campaign cycle dominated by expensive ballot fights over issues like gig-worker employment and dialysis clinic regulations that dominated airwaves.
What happened? Some of the lawmakers who helped place Prop. 16 on the ballot said they believe the Prop. 209 repeal language may have unnecessarily confused voters. They also suggested that the campaign needed to do a better job of educating the electorate on what affirmative action is and why it matters — and that was particularly challenging during an unprecedented early voting election with other well-funded campaigns competing for attention.
However, Connerly and other opponents said the California electorate continues to support the principles of Prop. 209 and do not want race or other personal characteristics to have weight in college admissions, public hiring decisions or contracting.
What’s next? Democratic lawmakers made clear in the weeks leading up to Nov. 3 that a defeat would not deter their effort to erase Prop. 209 from the state constitution. Legislative leaders have yet to indicate if they plan to pursue another measure on the 2022 ballot, though any effort to reinstate affirmative action would have to go through the voters.
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