Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Polaris
Billie Montague, 2, puts a vote sticker on her nose while watching her mom, Ashley Montague, vote in Newport Beach in 2020.

Voters spoke pretty clearly Tuesday against Proposition 16, defeating it soundly, but those backing the initiative say that confusing ballot language, lack of time to get a clear message to voters and misreading public support contributed to the loss.

Opponents of the measure called their 12-point win a landslide.

Prop. 16 would have allowed California’s public agencies, universities and community colleges to consider race, gender and ethnicity when making decisions on contracting, hiring and student admissions by allowing the use of affirmative action policies that were banned by Prop. 209 in 1996.

Tuesday’s outcome, which included more than 5 million yes votes, reflects the second time in a quarter century Californians have  decisively rejected affirmative action.  As of the latest tally, 56% of voters cast ballots against the  initiative, with only 44% voting in favor of it.

Bob Stern, the former president of the now closed Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles said he was surprised Prop. 16 got as much voter support as it did given how poorly it polled. “The public is not ready for affirmative action,” Stern said. “They want merit to be the consideration for university admissions.”

The No on 16 campaign declared victory at about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, calling the margin of defeat “a landslide.”

The head of the Yes on 16 campaign conceded Wednesday that its message didn’t get through to voters.

“The ballot language itself was confusing,” said Oakland civil rights lawyer Eva Paterson, who ran the effort to pass the proposition. The “yes” or “no” question on the ballot, written by the state Department of Justice, didn’t specifically say that its intent was to overturn Prop. 209 or use the words “affirmative action”.

On the ballot, the proposition reads in part: “Permits government decision-making policies to consider race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin to address diversity…”  (see adjoining box  for full wording).  

“We just weren’t able to get through to voters,” Paterson said. “I am glad we did this. We were able to talk about systemic racism.”

She said the campaign’s focus group sessions with voters showed that “people who didn’t understand the purpose of Prop. 16 didn’t get it. When we explained it to them they understood.”

Prop. 16 opponents said Wednesday that they achieved a clear and convincing victory.

“We have successfully defeated a far-left measure in America’s bluest state,” Wenyuan Wu, executive director of Californians for Equal Rights, and head of the No on 16 campaign, said in a statement.

The largest share of yes votes — more than two million — were cast in Los Angeles County, four Bay Area counties and Santa Cruz County, while voters in all the other counties across the state rejected the measure. (Go here for the latest results on Propositions 15, 16 and 18.)

Several million mail-in, provisional and same-day registration ballots were still being counted this week. It was unclear when the final election results will be certified.

Ward Connerly, the former University of California regent and the driving force behind Prop. 209 in 1996, said the No on 16 campaign was vindicated by the victory despite being vastly outspent.

“We were not on TV a single time,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We were the underdog.”

But, he added, “there is a solid majority of Californians who understand equality. They understand equal treatment.”

In an interview with EdSource last month, Connerly, who is black, said he believes there is no systemic racism in America and that jobs, contracts and university admissions should always go the most qualified person without raced or gender being considered.  He also said Prop. 16 was an attempt by Assemblymember Shirley Weber, D-San Diego and other backers to seize power in California and predicted whites would flee the state if affirmative action was reinstated.

Others saw more subtleties in Prop. 16’s defeat.

Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a San Francisco-based policy organization, said PPIC’s statewide polling shows 60% of Californians see race as an important issue. Yet the proposition, he noted, fell behind in early polling and never caught up.

“There just wasn’t a lot of time for people to understand what this was,” he said of Prop. 16, which was put on the ballot in June by state lawmakers led by Weber in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police.

“People were starting from zero,” Baldassare said. “It didn’t connect. That doesn’t mean Californians don’t think of race as a serious problem.

“The default is always that the burden of proof is on the yes side,” he added. This election “was a very difficult environment for people trying to introduce the ideas behind the proposition.”

Baldassare’s point on Californians believing race is an important issue in the state was echoed by Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of the Education Trust-West, a non-profit that promotes educational equity and a backer of Prop. 16.

“Our surveys of parents of K-12 public school students in California revealed overwhelming support for anti-racism, diversity and equal opportunity,” she said in a statement. “We will not be deterred from addressing the systemic barriers faced by students, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.”

The Yes on 16 campaign attracted $19 million in financial support through seven campaign committees, and endorsements from the state’s Democratic Party leadership, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris and many others.

The UC Board of Regents and the California State University trustees also endorsed it.

Outgoing CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White said the ability to use affirmative action policies would have let the system address “a fundamental opportunity gap” that Black, Latino and Native American students face by providing targeted scholarships and programs to help them stay in school and achieve a four-year degree.

An EdSource analysis of student enrollment data over the last 24 years shows that the affirmative action ban had a huge impact on California’s public universities with gaps between underrepresented students enrolled and high school graduates and those qualified for admission.

In a statement issued Wednesday, both UC President Michael Drake and Regents Chair John Perez lamented Prop. 16’s defeat.

The university “remains steadfast in its commitment to attract and support a student body that reflects California’s dynamism and diversity, despite this setback. We will continue our unwavering efforts to expand underrepresented groups’ access to a UC education,” Drake said.

UC’s “efforts to address racial inequities were greatly hindered by Proposition 209,” Perez said. “The failure of Proposition 16 means barriers will remain in place to the detriment of many students, families and California at large. We will not accept inequality on our campuses and will continue addressing the inescapable effects of racial and gender inequity.”

Public Advocates, a nonprofit civil rights law firm and advocacy organization in San Francisco that fights poverty and discrimination, also said the loss was a blow.

The defeat “demonstrates that there is much more work to be done to promote equality and combat racism and sexism in California,” it said in a statement.

“By maintaining the ban on affirmative action, our state will continue to deny policymakers powerful tools to level the playing field for people of color and women in business, education and public employment.”

The firm estimates women and minority-owned businesses in California lose $1 billion annually in public contracts because of Prop. 209.

Michele Siqueiros, president of Campaign for College Opportunity, an advocacy organization promoting college attendance and success, said the need to reform Prop. 209 hasn’t gone away because of the loss.

“For twenty-four years, we have been operating within the confines of California’s ban on affirmative action to ensure Black, Latinx, Asian and Native American communities find equal opportunity in state hiring, contracting and university admissions,” she said in a statement. “Today, we will continue to fight so all students have a chance to be prepared for college and go to college.”

Paterson agreed that work will continue to promote affirmative action but its decisive loss makes its return to the ballot uncertain. She said it will eventually “be restored in California” but wouldn’t offer a time frame of another attempt after Tuesday’s loss. “I don’t know,” she said.



To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

Share Article

Comments (5)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Jason 2 years ago2 years ago

    I voted against Prop 16 because I see it as a civil right violation in light of both the federal and state of California constitution. I absolutely reject the idea that discrimination based on race is the answer to the issues of equality and equity. I took lots of time to read what was happening. These law makers, who proposed prop 16 are in a bubble.

  2. Paul Muench 2 years ago2 years ago

    The more important loss was proposition 15. Proposition 16 is all about fighting over the crumbs.

  3. Roger Healey 2 years ago2 years ago

    Rather than attributing it to “unclear ballot language” or a “lack of time to connect with voters”, perhaps the people of California simply reject the notion of using further acts of discrimination as a remedy for previous acts of discrimination.

  4. cp 2 years ago2 years ago

    Affirmative action does not work. Californians have defeated this/a similar measure two times now. That does not make us racist, just as passage of any affirmative action measure would not change the hearts of those that are.