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How the record-breaking Proposition 22 campaign raises the stakes for California’s big-money initiatives – Silicon Valley

Nico Savidge –

A little more than a week before Election Day, there were signs of trouble for Proposition 22, the measure to overturn new employment protections for gig workers. Despite breaking records for campaign spending, a top state poll showed the pro-side side was falling short of majority support, with a sizable chunk of voters still undecided.

By Election Night, though, it was clear the initiative to allow tech companies such as Uber and DoorDash to keep treating their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees was cruising to victory, apparently buoyed by a surge of support from late-deciding voters as its ads blanketed airwaves and social media feeds across California.

Opponents of the measure, which partially repeals state regulations meant to bolster the pay and benefits of drivers in the so-called “gig economy,” say it sets a dangerous precedent that a wealthy industry can buy its way out of laws it doesn’t like so long as it spends enough money. More than $200 million was spent on the Yes campaign, the vast majority of which came from five tech companies — Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates and Instacart — that opposed the new regulations. The companies said the rules threatened the survival of industries that have become ingrained in many people’s daily lives over the past several years.

But that isn’t how the measure’s opponents view it.

“Uber, Lyft, and the other gig corporations took a ballot measure system meant to give voice to ordinary Californians and made it benefit the richest corporations on the planet,” the group Gig Workers Rising wrote in a fiery statement conceding the race Tuesday night. “That is not a victory to celebrate. That is a naked power grab and one more instance of corporations writing their own rules.”

Retired San Jose State political science professor Terry Christensen said the spending it not a new dynamic in California’s initiative system. He said corporations have long spent exorbitant sums to promote or beat back propositions that would affect their industry.

Elsewhere on this year’s ballot, the kidney dialysis industry spent more than $100 million to oppose the unsuccessful Proposition 23, a measure brought by labor groups that would have created new regulations for dialysis clinics, which results showed was roundly defeated. And though their campaign didn’t reach those heights, bail bonds companies spent millions to beat back Proposition 25, which would have eliminated California’s cash bail system, and likely decimated their industry as a result; that measure appeared headed for defeat as well.

But Prop 22 took the spending to new heights.

“It is an extension of what we’ve seen before,” Christensen said, “and it’s a message to other deep-pocketed organizations that they can do it in the future.”

The Yes on 22 campaign downplayed the importance of its massive fundraising advantage and flood of ads, countering that its message was simply more resonant with voters. Spokesman Geoff Vetter said the campaign’s internal polls showed the measure more comfortably ahead than public polls suggested and gaining ground through October, indicating late undecided voters were less critical to its success.

“What was really the deciding factor in this is that voters were swayed on answering one question, which is, ‘What do drivers want?’” Vetter said. “We made very clear throughout the entire campaign that drivers were overwhelmingly supportive of remaining independent contractors.”

Christensen said effective ads can make the difference in initiative campaigns because many voters — especially those who aren’t closely following the workings of the state Legislature or the battles over the freelance economy — haven’t developed firm stances on the issues and can be persuaded. Along with more traditional advertising, the companies supporting the measure turned their services into political platforms, including pro-22 messages in their apps and on delivery bags.

“The other side couldn’t compete on sheer volume,” Christensen said. “They were effective ads and they were just overwhelming.”

Political consultant Marva Diaz of California Target Book, a nonpartisan political tip sheet, said this year’s particularly crowded field for initiatives — with a dozen propositions on the ballot, not to mention a presidential election and a global pandemic — helped drive up the spending on Proposition 22. And while the measure set a new high water mark, the trend of bigger and bigger spending on initiatives shows no sign of slowing down.

“They were fighting for voters to pay attention to them and fighting for the time to educate them,” Diaz said. “If we see this number of initiatives repeatedly, then yes, we’re going to see more and more of those records being broken.”

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