California ballot measures garnered more than $750 million in campaign contributions this year, with donations to two propositions breaking state records. Yet, the measures pulling in the most money did not pass, while those with less financial support did. 

Authors

Written by: Phoebe Quinton and Cleopatra Howell
Reported by: Mark Allen Cu, Cleopatra Howell, Kaitlin Hsu, Evan Peng, Phoebe Quinton, Gabriela Reitz, Sonya Schoenberger, and Sophia Vahanvaty

That was the surprise result of the Nov. 8 statewide voting on seven ballot propositions with topics ranging from electric vehicles to gambling regulations. California is one of 26 states that offer ballot initiatives, or proposed laws, that voters decide by popular vote. Rather than have politicians propose and vote on all legislation, ballot initiatives allow voters to approve news laws directly. 

Despite populist intentions, ballot measures are subject to financial influence. Campaign contributions can influence election results by funding advertisements, flyers, phone calls, and text messages for and against varying proposals. 

There was no shortage of campaign contributions in the latest election. While many contributors gave to one campaign, others donated across propositions. Notably the California Teachers Association and the Federation of Indians of Graton Rancheria donated to three propositions each. The CTA donated not only to the propositions for the tobacco ban and arts funding, but also against the electric vehicle proposition, totalling $7.8 million in contributions. The federation spent over $30 million in support of gambling on tribal land and against online sports betting and an additional $5 million for abortion rights.

“The initiative process has shown itself to be susceptible to the same kinds of political dynamics as other forms of policymaking,” said Didi Kuo, associate director for research at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

However, in this election cycle, more money did not correlate with proposition passage.

Out of the seven propositions on the ballot, only three passed — to codify abortion rights in the state constitution, to reserve state funding for public school art programs, and to ban selling flavored tobacco. These propositions had the least amount of campaign funding. 

In this election, voters saw considerable media coverage about big money going into proposition campaigns. 

Articles speculated on the intentions of corporate donors like Lyft and Bloomberg. Lyft featured heavily in the news surrounding its contribution of almost $48 million to a proposition that would have subsidized electric vehicles. Bloomberg also caught attention with a donation of over $55 million towards a ban on flavored tobacco products. As a result, big spending may have actually hurt some propositions’ chances.

“I think that pointing out the sources of money or the sources of support by the proposition or creating more transparency around the financing can really sway the public,” said Kuo.


Proposition 1: Codifying the right to an abortion

By Sophia Vahanvaty and Phoebe Quinton/ Big Local News

Two-thirds of voters approved enshrining abortion in the state constitution. The widely anticipated outcome came after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in June. 

Opponents took issue with the proposition’s broad language. For example, there is no limit to how late in a pregnancy an abortion can occur. Contributions into the campaign were relatively small at $14.5 million. Of that, just $294,450 was in opposition to the measure.

Abortion was on the ballot in some form in four other states: Vermont, Michigan, Kentucky and Montana. Kentucky and Montana rejected increased abortion restrictions, and Vermont and Michigan also enshrined abortion rights in their state contribution. 

The largest contributor in support of Prop. 1 was the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which also donated in support of Proposition 26, which aimed to legalize sports betting on tribal lands, and in opposition to the online gambling-focused Proposition 27.


Proposition 26: Sports Betting on Tribal Lands – Sonya Schoenberger 

By Sonya Schoenberger, Phoebe Quinton, and Cleopatra Howell/ Big Local News

Proposition 26 would have legalized in-person sports gambling at California’s racetracks and tribal casinos. 

The proposition received over $180 million in contributions, yet failed 67% to 33%. This failure was predicted by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute-USC Price poll, with 62% of surveyed CA voters reporting that they would vote “no.” 

The largest individual donors in support of Proposition 26 were the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (owner of the Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park), the Pechanga Band of Indians, and the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. 


Proposition 27: Online Sports Betting 

By Sonya Schoenberger, Cleopatra Howell, and Phoebe Quinton/ Big Local News

Proposition 27 would have legalized online sports betting via online platforms. It was the best-funded proposition this election cycle and the most expensive in California history, but failed by a dramatic margin, garnering only 18% of the vote. 

While the proposition would have required online gambling companies to partner with a gaming tribe, the majority of California tribes rallied against Proposition 27, which they saw as benefiting out-of-state gambling companies and undercutting the revenue of tribal casinos. The proposition provided for a 10% tax on online gaming revenues, which would have funded homelessness and mental health support alongside economic development initiatives for non-gaming tribes. But many homeless advocates declined to support the proposition. 

Spending on Propositions 26 and 27 exceeded $468 million. Because one committee, which raised over $130 million, acted both in support of Proposition 26 and in opposition to Proposition 27, it is not possible to neatly split the $468 million total between the two propositions. However, Proposition 27 was a clear leader in spending between the two, with $168 million spent in support, and well over $100 million spent in opposition. 


Proposition 28: K-12 Public School Arts Funding

By Phoebe Quinton/ Big Local News

Proposition 28 was the only proposition on the ballot to receive no opposing contributions. 

With about $10.5 million in donations, the proposition also received the least contributions, around 70% of which came from LA.

With Prop 28’s passage, California will reserve $1 billion in new funding for music and arts education. The proposition does not raise taxes, but instead allocates 1% of the annual funding for all public K-12 schools and charter schools to arts and music education. 

The proposition passed with almost 64% of voters in favor according to the California Secretary of State’s Office. Some opponents reported concerns with funding the arts during an economic recession. Those in favor cite the importance of arts programs for childhood learning and development.


Proposition 29 – Staffing Regulations at Dialysis Clinics 

By Mark Allen Cu/ Big Local News

Proposition 29, which failed with a 68% “no” vote, would have required dialysis clinics to have a physician, physician’s assistant, or nurse practitioner on site during dialysis treatments. 

This was the third time that Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) has put this type of measure on the ballot. The proposition was largely funded by Union healthcare workers in support, and largely funded in opposition by healthcare companies and dialysis clinics. 


Proposition 30: Income Tax for Electric Vehicles

By Evan Peng/ Big Local News

Voters soundly rejected Proposition 30, with 58% voting “no”. The proposition was the one with perhaps the most intrigue and uncertainty going into the election, due to the odd political bedfellows it produced on each side of the campaign. 

The measure would have taxed income above $2 million an additional 1.75%, with revenue going to electric vehicle-related programs and subsidies. A minority of funds would have also gone to wildfire prevention. 

The vast majority of spending on the “yes” side—nearly $48 million—came from rideshare company Lyft. The opposition seized on that fact to characterize the proposition as a corporate money grab, propagating that message using funding from backers including the California Teachers Association, Gavin Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign, and a plethora of individual millionaires and billionaires including Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. 


Proposition 31 – Flavored Tobacco Ban

By Gabriela Reitz / Big Local News

Passing with 63% of the votes, Proposition 31 upholds a state law banning the sale of flavored tobacco products. The initial law – Senate Bill 793 — was enacted in 2020 when the FDA took action to ban the sale of certain electronic nicotine delivery systems targeted at youth. 

Proponents of the measure argued that the tobacco industry weaponizes sweet, alluring flavors to create a wave of nicotine addiction in youth while fostering addictions that already exist. Opponents of the measure argued that the policy is misguided, will hurt small businesses, eliminate necessary tax revenue, and ultimately do more harm than good. 

The repeal was projected to reduce tax revenue from the sale of tobacco products by $100 million every year. Had Proposition 31 failed, SB 793 would have been repealed. Groups that supported this measure include the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association, the California Teachers Association, and the California Democratic Party. Groups that opposed this measure included multiple tobacco advocacy groups, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., and the California Democratic Party. 

With combined contributions of over $58 million, the funding for this proposition caught mild attention from the public. Most notably, former New York City mayor and 2020 presidential candidate, Michael Bloomberg, donated $15.3 million in support of upholding the ban. In total, supporters of the proposition raised $35.3 million and opponents raised $23.5 million.