Who killed Proposition 19? It's a question that cannabis legalization proponents will be asking themselves for weeks to come. Was it Tea Partiers? Apathetic young voters? Or was it the marijuana-producing counties of Northern California, which feared losing market share for their main cash crop? Each of those story lines has already received attention. But a closer look at election results and exit polling data points to a different reason for why Prop 19 went down: Democratic voters. Specifically, blacks and Latinos, and to a lesser extent, Asian Americans.
Democratic voters didn't support Prop 19 as one might expect. While the six major Democratic counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Clara — all backed Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer by significant margins, their support for legalizing marijuana was tepid at best. And in some cases, they flat-out opposed it. In Democratic-rich Los Angeles County, for example, 63 percent of voters went for Boxer and Brown, but only 47 percent backed 19. If Democrats had voted for the measure like they did for the party's top two candidates, it would have won.
Who were the Democrats who went against Prop 19? According to exit polling by CNN, it appears to have been blacks, Latinos, and Asians.
Those three groups propelled Boxer and Brown to victory. Boxer took 80 percent of the black vote, 66 percent of the Latino vote, and 58 percent of the Asian vote. Similarly, Brown scored 77 percent of the black vote, 64 percent of the Latino vote, and 55 percent of the Asian vote. Yet those three groups also rejected Prop 19. Only 47 percent of blacks voted for it, 46 percent of Latinos, and 39 percent of Asians. Of course, those numbers aren't much different from how white voters treated Prop 19. Just 46 percent of whites voted for it.
But here's the key difference. Whites went Republican this year. A majority of whites voted for Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina and against marijuana legalization — a predictable Republican outcome. But blacks, Latinos, and Asians split their ballots. Large majorities of them went for Boxer and Brown, but then crossed over and voted against Prop 19. If blacks, Latinos, and Asians had voted for Prop 19 the way they did for Brown and Boxer, then the measure would have won by roughly 100,000 votes, the data shows.
The results were particularly striking when one considers that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately targeted for marijuana offenses. The Drug Policy Alliance recently produced two reports showing just how bad it's been for blacks and Latinos. Blacks in California's 25 largest cities are arrested for pot possession at rates four to twelve times higher than whites, even though many more whites report getting high. The numbers for Latinos are almost as bleak.
In Los Angeles County, for example, cops arrested blacks for pot possession at seven times the rate of whites from 2006 to 2008. That represented nearly 35 percent of all pot possession arrests, even though blacks make up just 9.6 percent of the county's population. And Latinos, who make up 10 percent of the county's population, were arrested twice as often as whites. "For decades, law enforcement strategies have targeted low-income people of color who bear the disproportionate burden and stigma of arrest, prosecution and permanent criminal records for marijuana possession and other minor drug offenses," Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, stated in one of the reports. The NAACP itself favored Prop 19.
But Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of California NORML, said he wasn't surprised that so many Democratic voters cast their ballots against legalization. After all, both Boxer and Brown opposed Prop 19, as did nearly every newspaper in the state. "It's not a Democratic or Republican issue," Gieringer said, noting that many independents and libertarians voted for Prop 19. "It's just not an ideological issue."
Gieringer was matter of fact about blacks and Latinos being against pot legalization even though they're targeted more often for marijuana crimes. "The fact is that blacks and Latinos are targeted for all crimes, and so marijuana just isn't any different in that regard," he said.
Other interesting tidbits from the exit polling: White men split evenly on Prop 19 — 50 percent to 50 percent, but they went big for Whitman and Fiorina. That's the independent/libertarian vote that Gieringer talked about. As for white women, only 42 percent of them voted for Prop 19, while 46 percent of them went for Boxer, and 47 percent, for Brown.
In the months ahead, pot legalization supporters may be reluctant to address the issue of race and Prop 19, much like gay-marriage supporters were uneasy about blaming the passage of Prop 8 on black and Latino churchgoers. But the exit polling data and election results indicate that avoiding race may doom future pot legalization measures. Blacks, Latinos, and Asians are usually more liberal than whites on most social and economic issues. And many blacks and Latinos, in particular, are suffering under the current system of prohibition. Clearly, the stats show that the legalization crowd needs to engage with them more if it ever hopes to win.