Capitol Alert

Why an election tradition in California is banned in other states

Voters including Debora Smith, right, cast their ballots at the polling place at El Dorado County Senior Center in El Dorado Hills on Nov. 6, 2012.
Voters including Debora Smith, right, cast their ballots at the polling place at El Dorado County Senior Center in El Dorado Hills on Nov. 6, 2012.

It’s hard to think of three words subject to more intense election-year scrutiny than the ones California candidates can include beneath their names on the ballot.

Every two years, campaigns do battle with the California secretary of state – and one another – over whether or not the professional descriptions they pick are within the bounds of state law. This year has been no different, with more than a half-dozen congressional and statewide candidates forced to amend their “ballot designation,” as its known, before the certified list of candidates for the June primary was released March 29.

It turns out, it’s a pretty unique election-year tradition. A survey of election laws compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), could not find another state that allows the same kind of professional description of each candidate to appear on the ballot. Officials at the NCSL emphasized that their list is not exhaustive, but their findings were echoed by other election experts and political consultants queried by The Sacramento Bee.

“It was always quirky,” longtime Republican political consultant Carl Fogliani said. “I haven’t noticed it anywhere else.”

In fact, more than a dozen states explicitly prohibit a candidate’s professional information from appearing on the ballot, suggesting it could be deceptive or create an unfair advantage for some. North Carolina, for example, bars candidates from including any “title, appendage or appellation indicating rank, status, or position” with their name as it appears on the ballot and only allows “legitimate nicknames in ways that do not mislead the voter or unduly advertise the candidacy.” In Kansas, a candidate can include a nickname on the ballot only if they sign an affidavit that it is a “bona fide nickname and is not being used to gain an advantage on the ballot.”

Four states – Michigan, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming – allow additional biographical information on the ballot, but only to distinguish between two candidates who have the same or similar names.

As in so many other areas of policy, however, California seems to be marching to the beat of its own drum when it comes to its ballot. California State University, East Bay Professor Elizabeth Bergman argues that’s a good thing. It’s “all about transparency and helping voters,” said Bergman, who has researched how states provide information to voters. “How do you not disclose something and argue that’s a good thing?”

What’s not in dispute is that this rather arcane aspect of election law – in place since at least the 1960s – has significant real-world implications.

Both academic research and anecdotal evidence indicate that a candidate’s description on the California ballot can affect their support, particularly in races where voters have little information. “It matters a lot in races where nobody knows who the heck is running,” said Fogliani. “So everyone is always trying to game it.” He cited past races he’s worked on in agriculture-heavy districts: “You have somebody running who’s a banker and they own some agricultural land or are an investor in agricultural property, they put ‘farmer’ on the ballot.”

Or take GOP Rep. David Valadao, who doesn’t list his political office, at all. As in previous election cycles, Valadao, of Hanford, will appear on the June ballot as a “Farmer/Small Businessman.” Only the asterisk beside his name on the secretary's list of candidates tips voters off to the fact that he’s the incumbent. But there's no such indicator on the ballot, itself.

Businessman or woman is a particularly popular moniker: 82 California candidates in total are using some form of that label in their ballot designation this year. They include longtime political officeholders like Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, a Turlock Republican, who describe themselves as ‘businessman’ in addition to their current elected offices.

There’s evidence that choice could improve their standing with voters. One 2005 study conducted by political scientist Monika McDermott, then at the University of Connecticut, found that California candidates for Treasurer and Controller performed significantly better in polls when they were described as a “businessman” or “businesswoman” than candidates with other descriptions, like “advocate.” It also found that occupational information made voters were more likely to vote – for any candidate – rather than leaving their choice for certain races blank. “Even if voters are gaining little real concrete information from occupational labels, they may feel as though they are ... and as a result feel more comfortable making a decision,” McDermott reasoned.

Elections experts say the fact that candidates are willing to wage legal battles over the descriptions is further evidence of their significance. Robert Stern, who served as elections counsel to the California secretary of state’s office in the early 1970s and oversaw decisions on candidates’ ballot designations, recalled “candidates getting very upset when we rejected their description.” And while he said the lawsuits were relatively unusual, “the disputes are not.”

That’s still the case. Many candidates were forced to use amended descriptions after the the secretary of state denied their first choice of words. Former state Sen. Tony Mendoza, for example, had to list himself as a “public school teacher” after the secretary’s office rejected his use of the description “state senator.” Mendoza was forced to resign his Senate seat in February over allegations of sexual harassment.

One Democrat running to replace Republican Rep. Tom McClintock opted to forego a ballot designation entirely, after her proposed description, “national security strategist,” and two other similar alternatives were rejected. Jessica Morse’s fourth proposal –“national security fellow” – was challenged by rival Democrat Regina Bateson in court, and struck down by a Sacramento County Superior Court.

Bateson’s legal case against Morse turned on the same portion of the law that has bedeviled high-profile 2018 gubernatorial candidates Antonio Villaraigosa and Delaine Eastin. Per the state’s election code, the occupational description has to represent the candidate’s “current principal professions, vocations, or occupations” or that of the previous year.

Morse left her last full-time job in international affairs in 2015, when she served as a program analyst at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the federal government’s foreign aid agency. Likewise, Villaraigosa rose to prominence as mayor of Los Angeles from 2005 to 2013. But as that was more than a year ago, he will appear on the June ballot as a “public policy advisor,” a reflection of his current job at a public relations firm.

Those kinds of disputes, and their political implications, are just the sort of things other states have aimed to avoid by prohibiting any hint of a candidate’s professional background from appearing on the ballot. But Bergman said it’s better for states to err on the side of more information, rather than less. Of course, politicians will “try and present themselves in a way that’s most favorable,” said Bergman. But “what is an election about if it’s not about influencing voters?”

Sacramento is one of five counties that will be testing a new voting system, starting with the June 2018 primary. All registered voters in these counties will automatically be sent a ballot 28 days prior to Election Day. Voters will be able to return their ballot by mail, deliver it to a drop-off location, or cast it in-person at any vote center in the county. Here's more:

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:37 p.m. April 4, 2018 to clarify that there is no indication on the ballot that a candidate is an incumbent.

Emily Cadei: 202-383-6153, @emilycadei

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