Posted on October 23, 2020

Prop. 16: Why Is Affirmative Action Measure Struggling in Woke California?

Joe Garofli, San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 2020

The wave of public support for a racial justice movement after the killing of George Floyd in May isn’t translating to the ballot box in California, as a proposition that was intended to address racial inequities is on shaky ground.

Supporters initially thought Proposition 16, which would reinstate affirmative action in public university admissions and government hiring and contracting, would appeal to Californians who were more open after Floyd’s death to the argument that systemic racism has held down Black and brown people in the U.S.

But the measure, which would overturn the ban on granting preferences by race and sex that California voters approved in 1996, is trailing. Half of likely voters oppose Prop. 16, while 37% support it and 12% remain undecided, according to a poll released Wednesday night by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Prop. 16 campaign pollster David Binder is more optimistic, citing an internal poll that he said found the race in a dead heat.

But even a close race wasn’t what state legislators envisioned in June when they voted overwhelmingly to ask Californians whether to strip language from the state Constitution prohibiting programs that were designed to admit more Black and brown students to the University of California and California State University, and to help non-white businesses get government contracts.


It is not the only measure on the ballot with a racial justice focus that is in a tough fight. Another is Proposition 25, which asks voters whether to uphold a 2018 state law eliminating cash bail. Advocates say cash bail is part of a system that keeps a disproportionate number of poorer, non-white defendants in jail for long periods awaiting trial. While there has been little public polling on Prop. 25, campaign insiders say the race is close.

Sam Lewis, executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and a supporter of Prop. 25, is concerned that the racial justice movement around Floyd’s death “just becomes a moment.”


Prop. 16 is facing a tougher climb even though it is supported not only by Democratic leaders including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Kamala Harris, but also by the California Chamber of Commerce — which tends to take conservative positions on ballot measures.


In a poll of Latino registered voters that the firm did in August, only 39% of respondents understood that Prop. 16 would reinstate affirmative action, while 32% thought it would block race from being used and 29% said they didn’t know what it would do.


Prop. 16 supporters acknowledge that they need to educate many younger voters on what affirmative action is. Nearly 80% of current registered voters didn’t vote on the 1996 measure that banned it, according to the campaign.