California Voters to Decide on Restoring Affirmative Action, Allowing Parolees to Vote

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Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) (background) authored the measures on affirmative action and parolee voting.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California voters will weigh in this fall on restoring affirmative action and allowing people on parole to vote, after the Senate gave final approval to the two constitutional amendments on Wednesday.

The measures were both priority bills for the state's Legislative Black Caucus, and passed amidst growing calls for lawmakers to address racial injustice in the state.

Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 would overturn a ban on affirmative action in California. Voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996 with support from then-Gov. Pete Wilson. It prohibited the state from considering race, gender and ethnic diversity in hiring, contracting and college admissions.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, the chair of the Black Caucus, authored the bill. During the Assembly floor debate, she said the current state of the country demonstrates that race and gender still matter.

“California's regressive ban on equal opportunity programs, such as affirmative action, denies women and people of color a level playing field in the workplace and in education," Weber said.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D- Los Angeles, said there's an inability — or a refusal — to acknowledge that slaves built the country.

"And the reason we have such a hard time having that conversation is because people are afraid that, in order to share power or resources, you might have to give something up," she said. "I get that. And that's what makes it difficult."

ACA 5 needed a two-thirds vote in each Legislative house to be placed on the ballot. While it easily met that threshold in both chambers, the amendment still faced some opposition.

Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, voted against sending the amendment to voters. She said she rejects the notion that either the state or the country is racist.

"California already has a number of, essentially, affirmative action type regulations in place. That's a fact," Melendez said. "Can we do more? We can. But is the answer to answer what one thinks is discrimination with more discrimination? No, it's not."

But Mitchell said we must acknowledge we’re not living in a colorblind society.

“In actuality, the data suggest the complete opposite. That our society is distinctly unequal along clear racial and gender stratifications," she said,

Previous efforts to modify the state’s affirmative action ban have failed. But supporters believe the current mood of the country could help this attempt be successful.

The second measure placed on the November ballot would grant the right to vote to the roughly 40,000 Californians on parole for a felony.

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ACA 6 would add California to the growing list of states that are expanding voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens in recent years.

“ACA 6 gives Californians the chance to right a wrong and restore voting rights for a marginalized community and people of color,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), the bill’s author, in a statement. “This is good for democracy and public safety.”

The state's current ban on parolee voting disproportionately disenfranchises Black people and Latinos, said Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena. Black Californians make up just 6% of the state's population, but represent more than a quarter of the state's parolees, according to a 2018 study from the Public Policy Institute of California.

"Without the ability to vote, their voices are silent and they have no voice in what we call a democracy," Bradford said.

Opponents of the idea argued that Californians on parole should not be able to fully participate in civil society.

“A part of their sentence includes the parole period of adjustment to free society, to see if they have rehabilitated sufficiently to be able to be safe risks in their community,” said Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama.

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Sen. Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, argued that ACA 6 — combined with recent state initiatives allowing earlier parole opportunities — would grant the right to vote to many Californians who would have been barred from doing so under the original terms of their felony conviction.

“We’re short-cutting it under this guise that they’ve already satisfied those conditions to community," he said. 

The only Republican to join the supermajority of Democrats approving the two ballot measures was Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita.

Wilk is the only Republican representing a Senate district in which more than 10% of the population is Black, and the seat is expected to be among the state's most competitive legislative contests in November.