Who killed Proposition 19? It's a question that cannabis legalization proponents will be asking themselves for weeks to come. Was it the Tea Partiers who came out in droves this year? Was it apathetic young voters who stayed away from the polls? Or was it the marijuana-producing counties of Northern California, which feared losing market share of their main cash crop? Each of those story lines have already received plenty of 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.
In last week's election, Democratic voters didn't support Prop. 19 as you 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 went against it. In Democratic-rich Los Angeles County, for example, 63 percent of voters went for Boxer and Brown, but only 47 percent backed Prop. 19. Indeed, if Democrats had voted for the measure like they did for the party's top two candidates, it would have won.
So what happened? Who were the Democratic voters who went against Prop. 19? According to exit polling by CNN, it appears to have been blacks, Latinos and Asians. What's interesting is that those three minority 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. In fact, Brown and Boxer could not have won without the overwhelming support of minority voters.
Yet those three groups also soundly 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. Brown only got 46 percent of the white vote, while Boxer received just 44 percent. In other words, 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 a rate four to 12 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 also 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.
He said he isn't sanguine about plans for another cannabis legalization measure on the 2012 ballot. He predicted that it would be difficult to craft a pot law that all supporters of legalization can agree upon. Some marijuana legalization advocates strongly opposed Prop. 19 because they didn't like how it was written. "It's not clear to me that in two years you can fix that," 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.
Robert Gammon is a staff writer at the East Bay Express.