Today is the final day to vote in the crucial June primary election that will determine how OC leaders handle priorities like criminal justice, schools, parks, homelessness, public health and housing affordability.
Local elections control the level of government that most impacts people’s daily lives.
And in local races, a handful of voters – sometimes even just one voter – can end up deciding who wins when the results are close.
“The only way you keep these people honest is to vote,” said Fred Smoller, a Chapman University political science professor who closely tracks local politics, referring to government leaders.
“Once they realize this is a game no one’s going to watch,” you get corruption like the City of Bell scandal, he added – where officials in a tiny city were paying themselves massive salaries bigger than those of leaders in New York City.
“If you want honest government, you’ve got to participate. It’s just that simple.”
But so far, it looks like many voters aren’t showing up – something that happens often during primaries in years where there is no presidential election.
As of Monday – the day before the last day of voting – election officials had received ballots from just 15% of voters in OC, down significantly from the 2020 election.
If that trend holds, it means each person’s vote matters even more – particularly when races get close.
To help voters make sense of the people on the ballot, Voice of OC for the first time sent questions to all candidates in key races – generated by readers and our newsroom – and published all of their answers.
Voice of OC also published a voter guide summarizing key races on the ballot.
The low turnout so far suggests that people aren’t really paying attention to this election, Smoller said.
Turnout numbers also tell Smoller that many residents don’t understand the ethical obligation to vote in a free society.
“This minimal level of participation is the price we pay to live in a democracy. It’s not very high. I don’t think it’s very high,” he said.
Some of the key races voters are considering surround the district attorney and the OC Board of Supervisors – which controls homelessness, mental health and public health policy as well as setting sheriff and DA spending levels.
In the DA race, a new twist emerged late Friday with an Orane County Superior Court Judge ruling incumbent DA Todd Spitzer violated California’s Racial Justice Act with comments he made when deciding on pursuing the death penalty against a Black man.
His only challenger who’s mounted a significant campaign – Democratic Party-endorsed Peter Hardin – also faces his own controversy centered on the year or so he previously worked at the DA’s office.
Smoller said he expects Spitzer to take the lead slot in the primary, speculating he even has a chance of winning outright without a November runoff if he gets more than 50% of the vote.
“The one thing Todd Spitzer is good at is getting himself elected,” Smoller said, noting the DA’s central campaign theme of protecting OC from LA-levels of crime.
“The crime issue is a powerful one. I don’t think he’s ever lost a race [for elected office],” Smoller added.
And control of the Board of Supervisors hangs in the balance, with coastal and south county’s 5th District race seen as key to whether Republicans or Democrats have a majority on the five-member board.
Democrats have rallied around incumbent Supervisor Katrina Foley, while Republicans are split between state Sen. Pat Bates and former Assemblywoman Diane Harkey.
It’s the opposite dynamic in North County’s 4th District. The OC Democratic Party endorsed against their own incumbent Doug Chaffee and are instead backing Buena Park Mayor Sunny Park, while Republicans have consolidated around Brea Councilman Steven Vargas.
For Congress, state Senate and state Assembly races, the two top vote-getters in the primary always face off for a runoff in November.
But for county-level races – like DA, supervisor, and judges – there’s only a runoff if no one gets above 50% of the vote.
The exception to that is the county Board of Education races, which do not have runoffs – making this primary election the only chance voters have to pick their top education officials.
In those races, the future of charter schools in Orange County could seriously be impacted – given that many of the candidates stand apart in their views on authorizing more charter schools.
Voting ends at 8 p.m. today, and Voice of OC will be publishing election night results after the first results go live at 8:05 p.m.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.