Schools chief race suffered at the bottom of ballot

Tom Torlakson greets his supporters during an election night watch party at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento on Nov. 4.
Tom Torlakson greets his supporters during an election night watch party at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento on Nov. 4. aseng@sacbee.com

The most contentious, competitive and – frankly – interesting statewide race on the Nov. 4 ballot was between State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the man who launched a serious challenge to his re-election, Marshall Tuck.

Theirs was a proxy battle in a larger nationwide war between teachers unions and school reformers. What was at stake was only the future direction of public education in the most populous state in the union.

It was the most expensive statewide race as well. More than $20 million in outside money was spent on behalf of both candidates. You probably saw the TV commercials. Or mailers. Or the online video with Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard.

Yet mysteriously, of the 6.7 million ballots cast in last week’s election, only 5.4 million of them included a vote for either of the two superintendent candidates. More than a million people who took the time to fill out a ballot simply skipped this important race. Even in the snoozefest that was the treasurer’s race, 6.3 million Californians voted, most of them for John Chiang.

That’s an astonishing amount of undervotes. Once you take a look at an actual ballot, though, the mystery clears up. The superintendent is the only statewide seat that doesn’t appear at the top of the ballot. Instead, it is listed way, way, way downticket, after state Senate, Assembly and even judicial races. That’s where voting generally drops off a cliff – what do most people know about judges? – and takes the superintendent’s race down with it.

There was probably a sound reason for that lineup back when it was enshrined in the California Elections Code long ago. It’s a nonpartisan race, after all, like local school boards. Also, the job itself has little in the way of actual power. The superintendent is essentially the director of the California Department of Education. Even the appointed State Board of Education has more responsibility in setting educational policy.

Whatever the reason, it no longer makes sense in modern times to have that race at the bottom of the ballot. Not when education has become a political battleground and when state government itself, and the superintendent in particular, have become obstacles to innovation and reform.

It’s unlikely the undervote would have swung this race. Torlakson was re-elected with a 4.4 percent margin, and much higher in the liberal Bay Area. But it certainly is within the realm of possibility that 1.1 million more votes could have made the difference.

Lowly ballot order does matter. One small change in some of Yolo County’s ballots shows how.

Voters in West Sacramento got a slightly tweaked ballot lineup to fit in their local races. As such, the races for mayor and City Council came before the race for state superintendent of public instruction.

In West Sacramento, the undervote for the Torlakson-Tuck race was only 16 percent vs. 18 percent elsewhere in Yolo County, said Tom Stanionis, chief of staff in that county’s election division and the producer of its ballots. That’s not much, but it indicates that even just a little distance from the judges gives the superintendent’s race some new life.

California’s schools chief job might not have a lot of power, but it has the power of the bully pulpit and clearly is seen as consequential to the future of education. It deserves a higher spot on the ballot, which can be accomplished with simple legislation. Secretary of State-elect Alex Padilla should put it on his first to-do list.