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Prop 16 Fails: California's Affirmative Action Ban Stands

 An illustration depicts a bar chart with the words "Prop 16."
(Illustration by Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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Prop 16 sought to overturn Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure that amended the California Constitution to ban the use of affirmative action at public universities and other public entities. Supporters argued that removing the ban would have allowed higher education to open the door wider for African American and Latino applicants.

"Our message basically was that ... government should not judge people based on their race, their skin color, their ethnicity or their ancestry. They should be judged as individuals," said Manuel Klausner, co-chairman of the No on 16 campaign.

"I think voter confusion was our biggest uphill battle," said Michele Siqueiros, a member of the Yes on 16 ballot measure committee. "We know that when folks read the ballot description that they were simply confused by it."

The Yes on 16 campaign's long list of endorsements, including state teachers' and nurses' unions, corporations such as United Airlines and PG&E, along with public agencies such as the University of California Regents, weren't enough to push Prop 16 to victory.

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Fundraising was of David-and-Goliath proportions. Klausner said his side raised less than $2 million. By one count the Yes on 16 campaign raised about $20 million.

Prop 16's defeat means public universities cannot include race as one of multiple factors for admissions. But private universities in the state are exempt from the ban and some of the largest — including USC and Stanford — will continue to use affirmative action as one factor in admissions.


The measure was unable to gain traction outside of the major urban centers in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area.

"We weren't able to convince enough Californians that our cause was the right one," said Yes on 16 campaign co-chair Eva Paterson.

The state legislature put Prop 16 on the ballot, which attracted support from civil rights leaders and top state legislators, as well as the University of California Regents. Paterson said Prop 16 would have chipped away at systemic racism by opening the doors to public university admissions, municipal contracting, to African Americans, Latinos, and women. And that would lead these groups to accumulate more social capital and power in society.

Paterson echoed Siqueiros' assessment that many voters weren't sure exactly what they were voting for — or against.

"The ballot language was confusing. Once we told people what the language meant, that it was reinstating affirmative action, they came to our side," she said.

She said the $20 million her side raised wasn't enough. How much would it have taken?

"The amount of money that Lyft and Uber had to get Proposition 22 passed... at least $100 million," she said.

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That would have allowed Yes on 16 ads to be broadcast more frequently and in more media markets, Paterson said.But Klausner, who was one of the authors of Prop 209 in 1996, said voters rejected Prop 16 on its merits.

"Election Day shows that the voters of California resent and reject the policies of racism and government's arbitrary use of immutable characteristics to discriminate among people," he said.

The No on Prop. 16 campaign raised about $1.3 million, making it even less able to get its message across in a significant way statewide.

Kevin Wallsten, a professor of political science at CSU Long Beach, said another factor was that Prop 16 competed for voters' attention with 10 other measures on the Tuesday ballot. And that may have created an uncertainty, he said, that pushed some voters to the no side on Prop. 16 if it was unclear what change the measure would have brought about.

"You don't want to vote yes for something that you're just not that sure about," Wallsten said.

The measure was only able to gain approval in six counties: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, San Mateo, Marin, and Alameda. Voters in the states 52 other counties soundly rejected it. (This EdSource map shows the breakdown).

Why was it only able to gain traction in the L.A. and San Francisco Bay areas? Likely because they've been the site of some of the most visible anti-racism activism in the state.

This activism has been fed by many college-aged people.

"We were really, really, really hoping for this to pass," said Aidan Arasasingham, president of the University of California Student Association, which was part of the Yes on 16 steering committee.

"We reached thousands of students throughout the state, you know, on our own campus at UCLA, 30,000 undergraduates," he said.

Arasasingham said many students he talked to understood how allowing university admissions offices to use race, ethnicity, and other factors would help open the doors to traditionally underserved groups.

He hopes that the outreach to college students and the increased awareness of how affirmative action would help dismantle systemic racism will pave the way "for another go at this in the future," he said.

The anti-racism protests across California raised awareness about systemic racism but that awareness doesn't appear to have helped Prop 16.

"For it to lose in this particular moment, when people are looking around at racial inequality and potential solutions to that is really kind of damning for future efforts to impose affirmative action at least through the ballot box," Wallsten said.


One of the largest impacts of Prop 209 was on the state's public universities, including the University of California and California State University systems. Under Prop 209, those institutions could not consider an applicant's race in admissions. California is one of only eight states that ban affirmative action.

Use of race, ethnicity, or other factors for protected groups for college admissions has been contentious for decades. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case that universities could not establish quotas to admit a set number of applicants by their race or ethnicity. But the ruling did not stop public and private universities from using race and ethnicity as one of several criteria for admission. Prop 209 ended that practice.

Proponents and opponents of Prop 16 claimed they were seeking to protect Californians from discrimination. It's important to know that besides doing away with affirmative action by adding language prohibiting "preferential treatment," Prop 209 also banned "discrimination," but that language was redundant, as the Legislative Analyst's Office and others have pointed out. There are provisions in the California Constitution and U.S. Constitution that already protect people from discrimination, so doing away with Prop 209's language wouldn't have removed state protections.

Watch KPCC's In Person Program, which gathered key people in the Prop 16 debate for a discussion about the measure.


Party lines shaped much of the support and opposition to Prop 16. The measure's supporters included a long list of Democratic California elected officials, from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. The California Labor Federation, along with teachers' and nurses' unions, also endorsed Prop 16, as did corporations such as PG&E and United Airlines.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said Prop 16 would open opportunities for African Americans, Latinos, and others.

"Californians have built the fifth largest and strongest economy in the world, but too many hard-working Californians are not sharing in our state's prosperity — particularly women, families of color, and low-wage workers. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 will help improve all of our daily lives by repealing Proposition 209 and eliminating discrimination in state contracts, hiring and education."

On Wednesday, University of California leaders expressed disappointment that Prop 16 failed.

"UC remains steadfast in its commitment to attract and support a student body that reflects California's dynamism and diversity, despite this setback," UC President Michael V. Drake said in a statement. "We will continue our unwavering efforts to expand underrepresented groups' access to a UC education."


The list of elected officials publicly opposing Prop 16 was much shorter. They included State Senator Ling Ling Chang, a Republican who represents the Diamond Bar area.

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chair Michelle Steele urged a no vote:

"The Californians who voted to pass Prop 209 knew that discrimination, though long entrenched in our society, is against the fundamental values of American culture. Prop 209 applied to California the essence of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a nation where individuals would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

A Note On The Results

  • The first results released included early voting, including mail-in ballots received before election day. In the past, local election officials have said all votes received and processed by the day before the election (in this case, Monday Nov. 2) are included in the first count. However, the high volume of mail-in ballots may mean that's not the case this election.
  • Keep in mind that in tight races particularly, the outcome may not be determined for some time.
  • In California, ballots postmarked on or before Nov. 3 may be counted toward the results as long as they arrive within 17 days of the election.
  • Results are finalized by county election officials 30 days after election day.


You can track the status of your ballot:

If your mail-in ballot is rejected for any reason (like a missing or mismatched signature), your county registrar must contact you to give you a chance to fix it. In Los Angeles County, the registrar will send you a notification by mail and you have until Nov. 28 to reply and "cure" your ballot.


KPCC/LAist higher education reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez will be tracking the vote on Proposition 16.

The unprecedented number of early voters and mail-in ballots this election means it's going to take more time to get votes counted. Our priority will be sharing outcomes and election calls only when they have been thoroughly checked and vetted. To that end, we will rely on NPR and The Associated Press for race calls. We will not report the calls or projections of other news outlets. You can find more on NPR and The AP's process for counting votes and calling races here, here and here.


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