Election 2020

California Voters Rebuked Their Governor, Legislators at the Ballot Box

With several ballot initiatives on Election Day, voters decisively rejected California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state's politically dominant unions, and the legislature.


If my social-media and news feeds were an accurate indication, many Californians had focused inordinate attention on the granular election tallies in such far-off places such as Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and Clark County, Nevada, as the nation awaited the final verdict in a cliff-hanger presidential election.

But there's a closer-to-home result that we could immediately understand without relying on election experts. Voters decisively rejected California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state's politically dominant unions, and the legislature. Although Californians are overwhelmingly Democratic and chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump by 4 million votes, their choices on statewide initiatives were remarkably conservative.

As Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R–Rocklin) pointed out, voters shredded the Legislature's priorities in the four statewide measures that dealt directly with its actions. In each case, voters unambiguously rejected the prerogatives of the state's Democratic leadership on issues involving labor law, affirmative action, the justice system, and voting rights. It's the latest example of how far out of step the legislature is from California's voters.

The obvious good news: Voters approved Proposition 22 by a whopping 2-million vote margin. Placed on the ballot by Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, the ballot measure allows drivers for ridesharing and delivery services to keep working as independent contractors. Its passage signified the final and long-needed gutting of A.B. 5, which codified a California Supreme Court decision making it nearly impossible for companies to hire contractors.

Go figure, but instead of forcing companies to bring these workers on board as permanent employees, it led to widespread layoffs, the shuttering of theater groups and musical gigs, and the collapse of freelance opportunities just when Californians needed them the most—in the midst of pandemic-related stay-at-home orders. To blunt its effects, the legislature previously carved out exemptions for 100 industries. Voters finished the task by exempting drivers.

The rebukes keep coming. The legislature had placed Proposition 16 on the ballot, which attempted to deal with the nation's ongoing racial strife by re-imposing race-based hiring and university admissions at public institutions. It would have overturned a 1996 initiative (Proposition 209) that banned race-based decisions. Voters were unambiguous, rejecting this measure by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin.

Voters also derailed the legislature's attempt to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they turned 18 by the time of the general election (Proposition 18). Eighteen has long been the standard age for voting and many other adult things, so it was hard to understand the impetus beyond the cynical goal of boosting the ranks of young, liberal voters. The legislature nevertheless placed this oddity on the ballot—and the voters said, "no, thank you."

California voters rejected, by a solid 55-percent to 45-percent margin, Proposition 25, which would have eliminated the use of money bail to release defendants from their pre-trial detention. This was a referendum—a "yes" vote kept the new law in place, whereas a "no" vote overturned it. I support bail reform, given that the bail system is based more on finances than risk, but there's no question voters soundly stymied the legislature.

The result could still change with final counting, but Proposition 15 is losing by more than three points. This measure, placed on the ballot by unions and backed by Newsom and the Democratic establishment, would eliminate Proposition 13's tax protections for commercial and industrial properties. Its likely loss would be great for taxpayers, but terrible news for a spendthrift Legislature that wants ever-higher taxes so that it doesn't have to reform its current spending.

In another great-news, damn-the-Legislature story, voters have once again rejected one of the most noxious ideas imaginable: rent control. Such controls not only deprive owners of their property rights, but they destroy housing markets wherever they are implemented—by discouraging the construction of new rental housing and reducing owners' incentive to upgrade their properties.

Proposition 21 would have allowed localities to pass even the strictest form of rent controls—including vacancy controls that forbid landlords from raising rents even between tenants. It is getting trounced, 60-40—a fascinating result that, as The Los Angeles Times notes, "shows that despite California's reputation as a progressive bastion, voters here are far from willing to support one of the most well-known housing ideas championed by the left."

The measure is the second one in two years that voters handily defeated. Yet after voters said "no" to that 2018 rent-control plan in the midst of a Democratic wave election, Newsom signed a statewide rent-control law. So much for the will of voters. By the way, Californians on Tuesday also nixed a union attempt to hobble kidney dialysis clinics (Proposition 23) backed by the state Democratic Party.

This year's initiative results need no microanalysis, but what are the chances that Newsom and Democratic supermajorities will recognize that even California's liberal electorate is not on board their far-reaching progressive agenda?

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.