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What was 2020 California Proposition 16?

California Proposition 16 was an initiative that appeared on November 2020 general election ballots in the state of California. It was written to get support for amending the Constitution of the state of California to repeal Proposition 209, which was added to the state’s laws in 1996.

Proposition 209 banned the use of affirmative action in several institutions across the state. Specifically, it forbid state institutions such as colleges and state employers to consider a person’s gender, race or ethnicity when accepting a person into a university or for employment.

Proposition 209 banned affirmative action in the public sector, but it did allow for “socioeconomic considerations” when it came to a person’s admittance to college or selection for a position of employment.

Proposition 16 was introduced in 2019; at that time, it was called “ACA 5” (Assembly Constitutional Amendment). It passed through the state legislation, and was placed on the November 2020 presidential (general) election ballot as Proposition 16. However, when placed on the ballot, a little over 9 million Californians voted “no” to amending the state’s constitution.

Proposition 209’s Impact on College Admissions

Proposition 209 is seen as an end to affirmative action in both college admissions and in the public workforce. According to a study carried out by the University of California at Berkeley, “Proposition 209 mandated that the University of California end its use of raced-based affirmative action.”

Specifically, the study pointed out that admissions for “underrepresented groups” had significantly declined on both the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses. This area saw a decline of at least twelve percent in enrollment by those in underrepresented groups.

Who were part of the underrepresented groups? Specifically, the Berkeley study saw that African Americans and Native Americans’ enrollment figures dropped. However, Latinos seemed to be hit the hardest by Proposition 209 – their enrollment figures dropped from 52 percent to 29 percent.

Asian Americans, however, were over-represented at both the University of California campuses. White students’ enrollment were only slightly below the number of all white students who graduated from high school.

When Proposition 209 was passed in 1996, colleges began to look for new ways to equalize the playing field for students wishing to enter post-secondary education. To do this, colleges began to consider a student’s family income, the neighborhood from which the potential student hailed, and census data. However, this failed to ensure that underrepresented groups were given the same opportunity to attend college as other socioeconomic groups.

Attempt to Repeal Proposition 209

As the years passed and colleges began to report that underrepresented groups were seeing a falling enrollment of African Americans, Native Americans, and others in URGs, people labeled Proposition 209 as “racist,” and demanded that it be repealed. However, the proposition remained a part of California’s state constitution for almost three decades before it was ever put on the ballot.

Much of the push for repealing Proposition 209 came from the University of California. They cited the Supreme Court‘s ruling that Affirmative Action was permissible in certain circumstances, including one’s admission to college. However, the repeal of Proposition 209 would have to undergo certain processes before it could be repealed.

The California state legislature had to vote to repeal Proposition 209. In 2019, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber introduced the constitutional amendment that would later become Proposition 16. At the time, the amendment did not seem to garner much support. However, after the death of George Floyd and a summer filled with protests and outrage, California’s state legislators were more than happy to add the amendment.

State Senator Maria Elena Durazo of Los Angeles was integral in bringing the amendment back to the forefront of state legislation. The amendment would have to be voted on by the people of California, but the state legislator voted by nearly sixty percent to add the amendment to the November 2020 ballot.

Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5

Once the state legislature had voted to add the amendment to the November general ballot, it took on a different name – ACA 5 (Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5).

The ballot measure was intended to “create equal footing among people of color and increase racial and gender representation in higher education and in the workforce.”

The movement titled their campaign “Yes on 16,” and the financial records of the group showed that the supporters of the cause raised at least $12 million. Ironically, there were certain institutions – some associated with minorities – that did not support the constitutional amendment. This included the Students for Fair Admissions and the Asian American Coalition for Education.

What were the Proposed Constitutional Changes?

A “yes” vote on the November 2020 general election ballot would have repealed Proposition 209 and basically allowed for universities and employers to use race as a condition for enrollment or employment (Affirmative Action states that employers nor universities can skip over a candidate simply because of race; however, Prop 209 took race out of the equation when a student applied for admission to a state-run university).

Proposition 209 stated that there should be no preferential treatment for a person of color, a particular gender, or a particular ethnicity when employment or college admission was considered. It effectively banned affirmative action, which was nationally sanctioned in the college admission process.

Removing Proposition 209 would allow both state and local governments to develop affirmative action programs which would “grant preferences based on race, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin” when hiring employees or granting admission to state-run colleges and universities.

The Debate over Cal Prop 16

Some political pundits referred to the measure as “a new skirmish in an old battle.” Many lamented the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, and some of the biggest supporters of the repeal of Prop 209 were state-run universities such as UC Berkeley and UCLA.

Affirmative action is not new to the United States or California. The idea was proposed during the 1960s when JFK was president. However, affirmative action became a game of numbers. This was evident in the case of Allan Bakke, a veteran who applied to medical school at the UC Davis branch of the University of California.

Bakke’s application was rejected, even though his application showed him to be a qualified applicant for the program. After some investigation, Bakke learned that the school “saved slots for minorities” and he sued the school. The California state Supreme Court ruled in his favor, but the United States Supreme Court overturned the state’s ruling.

Unfortunately, Affirmative Action got a bad reputation for turning away qualified applicants and become a game of quotas and numbers.

Those who support Proposition 16 state that there are many underrepresented groups that are not getting into schools and are losing job opportunities. They state that women and people of color are the chief groups that are affected by Proposition 209. However, even during polling, the Proposition 16 amendment wasn’t seeing much in the way of voter support.

This lack of support is surprising considering that a majority of California’s voters are people of color.

Supporter’s Viewpoints

Prop 16 was supported by some very prominent democratic leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom

Supporters of Proposition 16 claim that people of color and women are adversely affected by Proposition 209. Supporters want race to be “considered” during the college admissions process, stating that it “levels” the playing field for women and minorities when being considered for acceptance into college and in employment.

While universities could not specifically use race or gender as a factor when considering a potential student, schools did attempt to use what they called a “holistic review” of a student’s potential and how they used the opportunities around them while still in high school. Supporters state that this process still failed to give equal representation to Latinos and Blacks during the college admissions process.

Opposition Viewpoints

When the voting was finished, about 56 percent of California’s voters rejected (voted “no”) to Proposition 16.

Opposition to Proposition 16 included the idea that the passage of the amendment would violate the civil rights of qualified students – regardless of their race or gender. Surprisingly, this was not an idea embraced solely by conservatives – but Asian Americans and some conservative African Americans as well.

The Vote

Once all ballots were counted, 9,470,456 Californians voted “no” to Proposition 16, which meant Proposition 209 would NOT be repealed. Voting “yes” to the measure were 7,096,584 Californians. Both traditional and mail-in ballots were counted for the final tally.


Proposition 16 was also known as ACA 5, and the California legislation agreed to place it on the general election ballot in June 2020.

In total, 57,23 percent of Californians voted “no” on the measure.

Proposition 209 received 54.55 percent of votes from the California public in 1996, which banned affirmative action.

Not only did Bakke, the veteran who was rejected from UC’s medical school, file a lawsuit, but Ward Connerly led a movement against Prop 209. He stated that Affirmative Action was never meant to be permanent.

The measure, if successful, would have repealed Section 31, Article 1 of the state constitution of California.

Theories on Why Cal Prop 16 Failed

Some feel that the proposition failed due to the wording of the amendment. Others feel that there wasn’t sufficient public information regarding the measure. There is also the idea that the measure wasn’t supported by Asian Americans, who make up a significant number of California voters.

Key Takeaways

Perhaps better voter education would have led to a “yes” vote where Proposition 16 is concerned. However, voters are concerned about race as a consideration for admission to college or for employment, regardless if it is used as a means of making a quota or to keep someone from getting a job.

Again, voter education as well as a more clearly defined amendment could see measures similar to Proposition 16 voted into law in the future.