This has put California on the front lines of many political battles. The affirmative action measure on the ballot this year, for example, dated to 1996. That year, 55 percent of the state’s electorate voted to ban the use of race, ethnicity, national origin or gender in public hiring, contracting and university admissions.
The proposition that California voted on this time would have repealed the ban and was supported by a who’s who of the Democratic Party in the state, including Kamala Harris, the senator and vice-presidential candidate. But it was defeated by almost the same margin with which it had passed originally.
Analysts saw a reflection of the state’s demographic complexity in the vote.
“It’s always difficult to do proposition campaigns in a state of 40 million people,” said Anthony Rendon, a Democrat and the speaker of the California Assembly. “But our racial and ethnic groups are more complicated and divided than they used to be, in a bunch of different ways.”
Since 2014, no one racial or ethnic group has constituted a majority of California’s population. Thirty-nine percent of California residents are Latino, 37 percent are white, 15 percent are Asian-American, 6 percent are Black and fewer than 1 percent are Native American or Pacific Islander, according to the 2018 American Community Survey.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Rendon said, affirmative action is difficult to define, with different meanings to different generations, ethnic groups and income brackets. In most of the state’s working-class, inland counties, Californians voted to keep it banned. Only wealthier, left-leaning urban areas such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area supported bringing racial and ethnic preferences back into the public sector.
And in statewide polls, Latino voters expressed ambivalence — one survey done shortly before the election showed that only 40 percent of the state’s Latinos supported the proposition. Many white and Asian-American Californians opposed the measure, fearing that higher admissions for underrepresented minorities might mean less room for their own children in the University of California system. Some young voters did not even understand the concept, Mr. Rendon said.