NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Direct Democracy and Race in California

May 6, 2002

California relies heavily on direct democracy to make major policy decisions. Campaign spending on initiatives far outweighs spending on congressional elections, and, since 1970, the number of initiatives per ballot has almost tripled. Voters recently have decided the fate of drug policy, property taxes, environmental regulation and school vouchers.

This reliance on direct democracy has raised concerns about the role of race and ethnicity in the initiative process. Have whites dominated these elections at the expense of Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans?

Researchers have attempted to answer this question by analyzing voting patterns in initiative elections over the last 20 years. Among their findings:

  • Blacks and Latinos voted for the winning side 59 percent of the time, whereas Asian-Americans and whites were on the winning side 60 percent and 62 percent, respectively.
  • Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans also tended to obtain their preferred outcomes on the issues they said were most important to them.
  • Whites, blacks, and Asian-Americans voted for the winning side on these issues in equal proportions (59 percent), and Latinos voted for the winning side 52 percent of the time.
  • Finally, each nonwhite group fared reasonably well when it voted as a group. Blacks and Latinos won about 60 percent of the time when they voted cohesively, and Asian-Americans and whites won nearly 65 percent of the time.

In many cases, there has been general agreement across racial and ethnic groups on the issues. Also, each group is usually divided over which initiatives to support or oppose, substantially reducing any racial or ethnic bias in outcomes. Thus every racial, ethnic and demographic group wound up on the winning side of direct democracy almost as often as every other group.

Source: Zoltan Hajnal and Hugh Louch, "Is the Initiative Process Fair to Nonwhite Voters?" Research Brief, Issue 51, October 2001, Public Policy Institute of California.


Browse more articles on Government Issues