Faced with the opportunity to pull their liberal state further to the left through several state ballot propositions, California voters Tuesday appeared to be siding with tech companies in a fight over the future of the gig economy, while rejecting a bid to reinstate affirmative action and taking the battle over the future of their state’s landmark property tax limits down to the wire.

The campaign to pass Proposition 22, which would allow tech companies such as Uber and DoorDash to keep treating their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, declared victory late Tuesday night following the most expensive state initiative race in California history.

Meanwhile the lead flip-flopped several times in the tight race over Proposition 15, which would raise billions of dollars for schools and local governments by eliminating the historic property tax limits on commercial and industrial businesses enshrined in 1978’s Proposition 13. With about two-thirds of precincts reporting the No side held a narrow advantage.

That measure is one of several testing whether Californians want to reject their state’s more conservative past. An initiative to repeal California’s affirmative action ban, Proposition 16, was behind by several points and appears headed for defeat.

Voters also appear to be rejecting an initiative that seeks to eliminate the state’s cash bail system.

The gig worker classification measure, Proposition 22, played a central role in making 2020’s crop of a dozen ballot initiatives the most expensive in California’s history. The proposition campaigns combined to spend more than $750 million asking voters to weigh in on everything from stem cell research funding (Proposition 14 was narrowly ahead) to new dialysis clinic regulations (Proposition 23 was being trounced) to voting rights for people on parole (Proposition 17 seemed to be cruising to victory).

The vast majority of the more than $220 million that poured into the Proposition 22 race came from five tech companies — Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates and Instacart — that have opposed new regulations in recent years from California’s supreme court and the state legislature requiring them to provide the pay and benefits of full employment to their drivers. If the proposition is successful, those companies could keep classifying drivers as independent contractors, though with a guaranteed minimum level of pay and subsidies.

Tech firms say California’s regulations would strangle the app-based economy that allows customers to order rides, restaurant meals and groceries from their smartphones, and that it would destroy the flexibility that today allows drivers to set their own hours.

“There’s still a lot of vote outstanding, but right now we’re pretty confident that the majority of Californians are going to stand with drivers to protect app-based jobs and services,” Geoff Vetter, a spokesman for the Yes on 22 campaign, said as his side opened up a comfortable lead early in the night.

The proposition’s opponents say it’s an effort by a handful of wealthy corporations to buy their way out of regulations requiring them to properly compensate their drivers and pay their fair share for health care, unemployment insurance and sick leave. Cherri Murphy, a Lyft driver with the group Gig Workers Rising, which opposed the measure, said it “litigates the future of work” with so many people taking app-based jobs across the country.

“It is vitally important that we set a precedent here in California,” Murphy said.

The early returns point to a close margin for Proposition 15, which could generate as much as $11.5 billion for local governments, schools and community colleges by requiring that business property be taxed at its current market value, rather than its value when it was last sold.

The measure would not affect taxes on homes or commercial property worth less than $3 million. But its passage would be the most significant roll-back yet of the property tax limits that have long been regarded as the third-rail of California politics, and the culmination of a decades-long effort by many of the state’s top Democrats and its largest teachers union to boost the school and government funding that Proposition 13 has long restricted.

“This is the first time in 40 years that we’ve gotten this close,” said E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association, one of the main backers of Proposition 15. “I’m hoping that we can push it across the finish line.”

The measure faced fierce resistance from business groups, who contend it would amount to a massive tax hike at the worst possible time — when the economy is struggling to rebound in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Supporters of Proposition 16, which would allow public universities and local governments to consider the race and gender of applicants in decisions such as admissions, hiring and contracting, had been holding out hope for a comeback after polls found their measure trailing badly. But the Yes side remains well behind, trailing 45 percent to 55 percent as of late Tuesday night. Flip that around, and it’s the same margin by which voters approved 1996’s Proposition 209, the affirmative action ban this year’s measure sought to overturn.

The initiative’s struggles were among this year’s major surprises. Unlike in 1996, when the affirmative action ban was one of several racially divisive measures championed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, Proposition 16 went before a more diverse and liberal California electorate with the support of a long list of top public officials and businesses, while opponents of affirmative action are nowhere to be seen in the state’s modern political establishment.

But polls indicated the Yes campaign was struggling to win the support of Latinx and politically moderate voters, while some Chinese American voters were among its most vocal opponents. Supporters of Proposition 16 have blamed those problems in part on the coronavirus pandemic and presidential election, which consumed voters’ attention, while opponents of the measure insist the state’s voters remain committed to a colorblind government.

Two propositions that would remake California’s criminal justice system both appear headed for defeat.

Proposition 25, which trailed Tuesday night, would replace the cash bail system with another in which judges would use risk-assessment algorithms to determine whether someone can be safely released.

The measure’s supporters say people who pose no threat to the public should not wind up stuck behind bars because they can’t come up with the money to secure their release. But the details of Proposition 25 have fractured the state’s criminal justice reform movement — some community organizations that oppose the cash bail system view the risk-assessment process that would replace it as no better, and have found themselves uncomfortably aligned against the measure with the state’s bail bonds industry, which could have been wiped out if the measure passed.

And Proposition 20, brought by law enforcement and conservative groups in an effort to roll back criminal justice reforms voters enacted in previous elections, was soundly rejected. It would have allowed prosecutors to charge some thefts as felonies and restrict access to parole, among other provisions. Opponents countered that those “tough on crime” strategies are a failure.


By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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