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Press Release · October 15, 2001

Nonwhite Voters Generally On Winning Side In State Initiative Elections

But When Race is Focus of Initiatives, Minorities Lose Out

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 15, 2001 – Does California’s majority-driven initiative process put nonwhite voters at a disadvantage? Not in most cases, according to a new study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). In fact, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans vote for the winning side in state initiative elections nearly as often as whites. However, when issues concerning race and ethnicity are the central focus of initiatives, nonwhite voters – especially Latinos – are far less likely to prevail than the state’s white voting majority.

The study, Are There Winners and Losers? Race, Ethnicity, and California’s Initiative Process, analyzes 45 statewide initiative votes between 1978 and 2000 and finds that, on the whole, there is very little evidence that nonwhite voters are consistently on the losing side. Authors Zoltan Hajnal and Hugh Louch find that whites are on the winning side of initiatives 62 percent of the time, Asian Americans 60 percent, and African Americans and Latinos 59 percent. “In general, all groups have been successful when voting on initiatives,” says Hajnal, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. “In many cases, the key to this success has been general agreement across racial and ethnic groups about the issues at the heart of most initiatives.”

However, the study reveals an important exception: When race and ethnicity itself is a key part of an initiative, nonwhite voters fare poorly compared to whites. On minority-focused issues such as illegal immigration (Proposition 187), affirmative action (Proposition 209), and bilingual education (Proposition 229), whites voted for the winning side nearly 64 percent of the time, while Latino voters saw victory only half as much (32%). On these same initiatives, other minority groups fare better than Latinos but still lag behind whites, with African Americans voting on the winning side 57 percent of the time and Asian Americans 48 percent of the time.

“Much of the concern about how direct democracy affects minorities stems from the small number of initiatives that focus on members of these groups,” says Hajnal. “In many of these cases, it is clear that the preferences of the white voting majority are in opposition to the preferences of minority voters, especially Latinos.” Despite this conclusion, a PPIC Statewide Survey conducted in October 2000 found that Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans are just as supportive of the initiative process as whites. Sixty-nine percent of Latinos, 72 percent of African Americans, and 67 percent of Asian Americans say it is a good thing that a majority of voters can make laws and change public policies through the initiative process, compared to 68 percent of whites.

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. David W. Lyon is President and CEO of the Institute.