By Dan Walters
With a turnout that smashed all records, millions of votes remain to be counted in California, but tallies so far are providing some strong themes, to wit:
• The disdain of President Donald Trump as Californians gave challenger Joe Biden a victory in the state of historic proportions. Voters favored Biden by a 2-1 margin.
• Democrats retained their overwhelming control of the Legislature and the state’s 53-member congressional delegation. A few seats are changing partisan hands, but not enough to make any practical difference in either venue.
• With most of the human contests pre-ordained, the big action in California this year was in the 12 statewide ballot measures and spending for and against them approached a billion dollars, easily a record.
• Although labor unions dominate the Democratic Party, which dominates the state’s politics, they didn’t fare particularly well in high-dollar battles with corporate interests.
• Labor’s most spectacular loss was passage of Proposition 22, an effort by Uber, Lyft and other app-based transportation services to exempt themselves from a new law that tightens up the definition of employment and makes contract work more difficult.
The corporations spent more than $200 million to pass the measure, arguing that their drivers preferred independence and sweetening the deal with some income guarantees and fringe benefits. Although Proposition 22 was narrowly focused, its passage indicates that the debate over the nature of 21st century employment will continue — and perhaps become even more intense with the advent of widespread at-home work due to COVID-19.
• Unions are on the verge of losing another big battle, this one on Proposition 15, which would make a big change in Proposition 13, California’s iconic property tax limit approved by voters 42 years ago. It would, if passed, require more frequent reassessment of commercial property for tax purposes and raise millions of dollars for schools and local governments.
Public employee unions have yearned for decades to alter Proposition 13 despite its continuing popularity and believed that changing the rules on commercial property was their best bet. Pre-election polling indicated a close outcome and the official vote-counting confirmed that scenario, but the “no” side is leading in initial tallies.
• The failure of Proposition 23 by a very wide margin is still another setback for organized labor. The union-backed measure would have imposed new operating requirements on dialysis clinics in an effort to persuade their owners to accept unionization of their employees. It was the second such effort but the clinics spent heavily to persuade voters that passage would adversely affect patients.
• If the losses by unions implied that there is a limit to the leftward drift of California’s voters, the defeat of Proposition 16 drives home the point. The Legislature’s supermajority Democrats placed the measure on the ballot, believing that 2020 was the right moment to ask voters to repeal the state’s ban on affirmative action in college admissions, government hiring and contracting.
The measure was endorsed by virtually every major Democratic political figure, had a slanted official ballot title and enjoyed lavish financing from liberal organizations and individuals, but was trailing by more than 10 percentage points today, as pre-election polling indicated it would.
• Finally, the criminal justice reform movement won on two measures and lost on one. They won when voters rejected Proposition 20, which would have increased penalties for some offenses, and passed Proposition 17, restoring voting rights for ex-felons. But they lost on Proposition 25, which would have endorsed the Legislature’s elimination of cash bail for criminal defendants.
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