Why did the latest ballots start with the least-relevant contests, far-away state and federal races that weren’t competitive in many cases?

And why are the contests that have the most daily impact on people’s lives – local races – listed last?

With final counts showing only about a third of Orange County voters participated in the primary election this month, some are starting to question that – and state lawmakers are considering changes.

Three of OC’s top professors on local politics – Fred Smoller, Jodi Balma and Mike Moodian – all emphasize that local races should go first, noting local governments are closest to people and often affects residents’ daily lives more than the state or federal governments.

“Most importantly, you want the level of government that touches people directly” to go first, Smoller, a Chapman University political science professor, said in a phone interview.

“Where they say the rubber hits the road, is local. And therefore those positions which are frequently ignored should receive the most attention.”

Moodian, his Chapman colleague, notes that voters usually already know who they’re going to choose for president and governor by the time they receive ballots.

He said putting local races first would give voters “an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the individuals that they’re voting for and to do a little more independent research.”

Some OC Supervisors said they really didn’t have feelings about it one way or another.

Supervisor Don Wagner said propositions, which are low on the ballots, still bring people to the ballot boxes.

Putting local races first would require a change in state law.

And that’s something key state legislators say they’re interested in pursuing after being asked about it by Voice of OC.

“I’d consider taking that up next year,” said state Sen. Josh Newman, who is the only Orange County representative on either of the state Legislature’s elections committees.

“There aren’t, to me, big compelling arguments against it. And so I’d be interested to hear my colleagues … [and] I’d be inclined to pursue that,” he said. “Arguably, your local government, your city council impacts people the most.”

Local elected officials, Newman added, have the most immediate effect on residents’ lives. 

“[Local government is] kind of everything that impacts your circumstances, your quality of life. So if you were to propose putting those people closer, at the beginning of the ballot, I’m all for it.”

The leader of the state Senate’s elections committee also said he’s open to changing state law so counties that want to put local races first can.

“[Am I] open to having other communities and counties who would like to change the order be able to do that? Yes,” said Sen. Ben Glazer, who chairs the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee.

“I tend to shy away from statewide mandates. But where local communities want to, I’m very open to that,” he added.

Glazer also said he’s concerned by the drop-off of voters as they get to further-down local races.

“Drop-off is a problem. And I agree that local government – government closest to the people – is always most effective, most responsive. And it’s sad to see less interest there. And there’s a trend that goes in the wrong direction in my view.”

The Los Angeles County Experiment

There’s one place in California that was recently allowed to put local races first.

LA County is in the midst of a short-term trial of putting local races first on its ballots – in 2020 and this year’s election, stemming from a 2018 state law.

After that, the county is required to produce a report to the state on how it played out, and has the option of continuing that approach.

Dean Logan is in charge of elections in LA County.

He said a full analysis hasn’t yet been done on how the change has affected participation, but that all signs point to just as many people voting for president as they used to, despite it being moved to the back of the ballots.

“There’s no indication that we’ve seen so far, for instance in 2020, that it had an adverse affect on, say, the presidential contest which was at the very end of the ballot,” Logan said in a phone interview.

Much of what drove the LA County change was a new state law forcing cities and school districts to shift to be on the even-year ballots with governor and presidential races, as opposed to their prior practice of having elections in odd-numbered years.

Many of those local officials were concerned about being buried at the end of the long ballots.

When the LA County bill worked its way through Sacramento, the only group to oppose it was the statewide association of election officials. They expressed concern that voters would think the presidential race is “missing” from the ballots, and flooding the county with calls.

Logan said those calls did come in, but not to the extent that it caused any major problems for his staff. And he said with time, voters are adapting to the new order.

​​“It certainly wasn’t anything where I would say the pilot [law putting local races first] was disruptive,” Logan said. “We knew about it and were prepared for it, and were able to field those calls.”

“I think that’s just a voter education factor, that voters will get used to the order, if it is adopted and maintained going forward.”

He added that it’s “probably a good policy to” have the same ballot order statewide, for consistency for voters.

The law letting LA County put local races first was put forward by Sen. Anthony Portantino, who said the idea came from local government officials like Glendale’s then-City Clerk Ardy Kassakhian.

In an interview with Voice of OC, Portantino said that when the state made LA County’s cities consolidate their elections with state and federal races, Kassakhian and others told him they were “worried that on one of these long ballots people are going to vote for president of the United States and not go all the way down and vote for school board and city council.”

Portantino said he’s received no complaints about the ballot order changing.

“We’ve seen none of that. I haven’t seen or received one complaint. Only appreciation that it made sense,” he said.

Other legislators have since shown interest in expanding the idea elsewhere, he said, adding he’s “happy to collaborate” with Newman on it.

Will OC Consider a Change? 

What do OC leaders think?

The man who oversees OC’s elections, Registrar of Voters Bob Page, deferred comment to county supervisors, noting they are in charge of the county’s legislative priorities.

The only supervisors to return messages for comment were Don Wagner and Lisa Bartlett, who questioned whether changing the order would make a difference in getting more participation.

“I don’t have strong feelings,” Wagner said in a text message to Voice of OC.

“Voters interested in a particular race will find it on the ballot. Initiatives are said to bring out voters and they’re usually towards the end. I doubt it will have much effect.”

“There would need to be a compelling case for changing the order on the ballot and putting the local offices first,” Bartlett said in a text message to Voice of OC.

Asked if putting local races first would help with “drop-off,” Bartlett said “there should be a scientific way to determine if there is indeed a drop off in voting at the end of the ballot.”

Voice of OC found an example.

In this month’s election, the county district attorney race had significantly more advertising spending and public exposure in Orange County than the race for state attorney general.

Yet about 47,000 fewer voters cast ballots in the DA race – which was listed towards the end of ballots – than the AG’s race, which was listed towards the front.

“That is an interesting statistic,” Bartlett replied.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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