California Chooses Criminal Justice Reform

California Chooses Criminal Justice Reform

California Chooses Criminal Justice Reform

Results are not final, and some are not progressive, but Golden State voters continue to turn away from the tough-on-crime course set in the 1990s.


On the surface, California’s Election Day was politics as usual in the state that Trump so frequently lambasts for its liberal tendencies.

When more than 15 million Californians voted on Tuesday, the state’s choice for the president was a foregone conclusion. Biden has from the outset led Trump by at least a two-to-one margin, and with the votes being tallied into Wednesday, that margin has actually grown. When the dust settles, California will have favored Biden by perhaps as many as 5 million votes. (As of this writing, Biden’s margin was already nearly 4 million, with only 73 percent of the vote tallied.)

As in 2016, Biden’s national popular-vote margin over Trump will be due in large part to the Golden State. In 2016, California helped give Clinton a nearly 3 million-strong lead in the national vote; this year, it looks like Biden will end with a buffer of roughly 5 million, not far shy of what many of the final polls predicted—but, of course, this huge majority has no effect on the swing states. In a genuinely democratic system, Biden’s comfortable national majority would have been game, set, and match for the Democrat; in our Electoral College system, those 5 million additional votes count for naught.

Californians knew this would be the case from the get-go, which is perhaps why activists here channeled so much energy into a slew of ballot measures and congressional and local races. They pushed for affirmative action to be reinstated, for progressive “split roll” property taxes that would undo at least some of the harmful fiscal legacy of the notorious Prop 13, passed by angry voters in 1978 as the opening shot in a national tax revolt. And they sought to codify a range of criminal justice reforms, from ending cash bail to allowing parolees to vote. For Angelenos, there was the added interest of a competitive DA race between incumbent Jackie Lacey and ex-DA of San Francisco George Gascón.

There are many votes still to be counted in these various races, and results haven’t been finalized in most of the propositions. But some trends are emerging.

On criminal justice, California continues to turn away from the tough-on-crime course that it set in the 1990s, when it passed the country’s strictest “three strikes” law, opened up many new high-security prisons, and catapulted the prison guards’ union to a place of extraordinary influence in state politics. This time around, it looks like voters have chosen to re-enfranchise parolees and reject an initiative that would have reimposed harsh felony charges for a range of crimes that reformers had managed to recategorize as misdemeanors last year. In LA County, voters appear to have chosen Gascón over Lacey, meaning that the country’s second-most-populous city will have a reform-minded DA, whose views on crime and social justice align him with other progressive DAs, such as Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner.

But not all the California votes tended in as progressive a direction. It looks like the bail-bond industry, which poured tens of millions of dollars into a campaign to reinstate cash bail, may have secured a victory on that proposition (though the result has not yet been finalized). On the most expensive proposition, into which Uber and Lyft poured hundreds of millions of dollars, Californians voted to continue to treat gig workers as contractors, voiding a state law that aimed to make companies treat them as employees, and thus obligated their employers to provide benefits such as health care and unemployment insurance. And on the proposition to create a “split roll” property tax—intended to tax commercial properties based on current real-market value rather than the value when the property was last bought and sold—the anti-tax movement looks like it has eked out a win, thus depriving California of urgently needed dollars for shoring up schools and other vital public institutions. And finally, the affirmative action initiative was soundly defeated.

California voters’ embrace of a number of conservative propositions, or opposition to some of the progressive ones, was also reflected in congressional races. A number of the Central Valley and Southern California congressional seats that Democrats won as part of the 2018 blue wave are likely to be won back by the GOP—though in several of those seats, current tallies are within a couple percentage points, with many ballots still to be counted. Depending on what happens elsewhere in the country, however, the underperformance of California congressional candidates this November could prove significant in shaping the contours of the Democratic majority that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is likely to retain. So far, this has been something of a sleeper story, but as the breakdown of the new Congress becomes clearer, these battleground seats in the West will grow in importance.

How California fits into the national political conversation is always complicated. On many issues, it is now driving a progressive agenda that, increasingly, voters throughout the West are embracing. Yet it has also at times in the past spearheaded deeply conservative movements on a range of policies, and those conservative legacies can be seen in the views of many Californians on such issues as property taxation. Tuesday’s vote was a reminder of just how volatile California politics can be, even in this age of overwhelming statewide dominance by progressive Democrats.

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