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California avoids GOP wave,” read one Washington headline after the November 2010 midterm elections; another accused our state of being impervious to change.” Not true. There was big change here, with crucial implications for critically needed criminal justice reforms. 

California’s resistance to the right-wing wave was profound. Democrats captured eight state offices (up from five of eight in 2008) and held its U.S. senate post, usually by double-digit margins. The Democratic Party, shellacked” elsewhere, actually increased its California House of Representatives delegation (3419, up one seat). In the state legislature, Democratic majorities held steady in the Senate (2515) and increased by two seats in the Assembly (5228). Never has the California Republican Party been weaker. 

The dynamics behind California’s unique 2010 Democratic sweep are even more striking. Normally, voters in a midterm election tend to be older, whiter, and richer than those in a presidential year, which is what happened nationally. Yet, exit polls reveal a very different trend in California from 2008 to 2010

Percentage of 2010 voters who were: California Nationally White 61% (down 2%) 77% (up 2%) Latino 22% (up 3%) 8% (no change) White, income $50,000+ 45% (down 3%) 53% (up 3%) Nonwhite, income under $30,000 17% (up 3%) 11% (down 2%) Age 18 – 29 13% (down 7%) 12% (down 6%) Age 65+ 20% (up 5%) 21% (up 5%) 

Not only were California’s 2010 voters much more likely to be nonwhite or Hispanic than those nationally, poorer and nonwhite voters increased their participation here even as they declined nationally. I suspect the 2010 census figures, due out in May, will show the state’s population increase of 4.5 million over the last decade included much larger proportions of younger Latinos and Asians and more pronounced older white flight from California than ever. 

These trends suggest bolder efforts to reform the criminal justice system will prove increasingly fruitful. The elections of 2012 and beyond bring hope for boldly progressive issues and candidacies. As impossible as this would have sounded until very recently, it’s likely that once-sacrosanct measures like Three Strikes or Proposition 21’s juvenile crackdown would not be passed by today’s electorate. Polls have consistently shown the chief constituency blocking reform of harsh sentencing laws and drug-war reform is older whites, a segment now in eclipse. 

Electing progressive leadership that will responsibly reform the state’s criminal justice system (which has not always equated with Democrats, as the greater status-quo bias of former Democratic Governor Gray Davis versus Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger showed) is critical. The major challenge is participation by a diverse electorate no longer dominated by its richest, most backwards-thinking constituencies. In particular, it’s crucial to reignite the involvement of young people. One important reform to explore is balancing an aging electorate by extending the state and local voting age to 16

Increasingly, California is its own country, the ninth largest economy in the world, a global state with large populations from all five major continents. It’s a two-edged sword: dwindling federal aid and oversight opens up exciting new vistas. If the state wants to cite the record low in juvenile crime to abolish the already-emptying state youth prison system… if San Francisco wants to adopt radical local initiatives to address concentrated poverty… if lawmakers or voters want to bring marijuana, the state’s largest cash crop, into the legal economy while sharply cutting arrests… if the governor’s office wants to push drastically narrowing the offenses prompting imprisonment… if state powers want to redirect funding away from crackdown, curfews, and lockup and toward education and treatment… it’s all on the table. CJCJ and progressive groups are in an increasingly strong position to contribute research-driven reforms with growing odds of success.