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Politics & Government

Why This Year’s Ballot Propositions Show California Isn’t As Progressive As Some Might Think

John Myers/KQED

While California is often painted as a solidly blue state, the 2020 election has shown that when issues are on the ballot, it’s not always so progressive

No surprise — unofficial election results show California voters going for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden over President Donald Trump by a 2-to-1 margin. Democrats dominate state government, too.

But while California is often painted as a solidly blue state, the 2020 election has shown that when issues are on the ballot, it’s not always so progressive.

“Everybody focuses on candidates, while initiatives are where all the policy gets done,” said Democratic strategist Jim DeBoo.

DeBoo worked on the successful “No on Prop 21” campaign this cycle, advocating against expanded rent control laws. He was speaking on a panel hosted by Capitol Weekly Thursday.

“When you’re having a discussion with voters about initiatives, the partisanship pieces separate,” he said. DeBoo noted that there’s often a false assumption that Californians are going to turn to their political party leaders for guidance on ballot measures.

The current state of the propositions show voters siding with business interests this time around:

  • For the second election in a row, they voted down regulations on dialysis clinics by rejecting labor union-backed Proposition 23.
  • Despite opposition from unions and progressive U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders — who Democrats in the state supported over Biden in the March presidential primary — voters passed Proposition 22, opting to let companies like Uber and Lyft exempt their drivers from state labor laws.
  • Twenty-four years after banning it, voters again rejected affirmative action, which allows diversity to be considered in public-sector hiring and college admissions.
  • And while a battle over the future of California’s landmark property law is not yet settled, early results show Proposition 15 with 48% of the vote. If that margin holds, the measure — which would raise taxes on commercial and industrial landowners to provide more money for schools and local governments —would be defeated.

Not exactly on-brand with California’s progressive identity.

“California isn’t a big, blue banner,” said Robin Swanson, another political consultant who worked on a campaign for Proposition 24, to expand state privacy laws.

In 2016, Trump received nearly 4.5 million votes in California, the largest number of any state not named Texas or Florida. This year, that’s likely to happen again.

“There is a whole Central Valley that we all have to pay attention to, and certainly other parts of the state that don’t just vote in a monolith,” she said.

Swanson said sometimes, messaging on statewide ballot issues needs to be tailored to different regions of the state.

But a closer look at countywide votes on these ballot measures show there are big regional differences. For example, preliminary results show while several counties along the north coast and in the liberal Bay Area voted against Proposition 22, the rest of the state (with the exception of tiny Alpine County, which has fewer than 1,000 registered voters) voted in favor of it.

Proposition 21, which would have created a path for local governments to impose new rent control laws, failed in every county except for San Francisco, according to unofficial vote counts.

While areas that have trended blue in recent elections — like Fresno and Orange Counties — early county-level results for statewide ballot propositions show voters in these areas still have strong pro-business, anti-tax views.

In Fresno County, only 40% of voters are supporting Proposition 15, with 60% of counted ballots so far opting to reject the measure. In Orange County, early results show 39% of voters supporting the measure.

On Proposition 22, unofficial tallies show both counties supporting the measure 66% to 34%.

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