Put the Local Races on the Top of the Ballot

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Anthony Portantino, the state senator from the western San Gabriel Valley, is advancing a smart idea that deserves immediate attention: putting local races at the top of the ballot.

Portantino, in a news release, attributed the idea to Glendale’s city clerk, Ardy Kassakhian, who clearly has good sense. California has undertaken significant changes to local democracy in the name of improving representation and participation. Specifically, local elections have been pushed out of odd-number years and consolidated with statewide elections in even years.

But under current rules, those local races – and local ballot measures – end up at the end of very, long California ballots. If we want people to pay more attention to local contests, why not put them first?

Voters will surely find gubernatorial or presidential contests far down the ballot –since those get the attention of media. But in an era where local coverage is mostly kaput, the idea of privileging local races makes sense.

According to his release, the ballot order would look like this:

Local/City/School Offices & Propositions

County Offices & Propositions

State Offices & Propositions

Federal Offices

Portantino’s idea would be even better if the ballot propositions didn’t appear on these long ballots – and instead were voted upon in separate elections, as is common in other countries with ballot measures. Lawmaking is very different than picking a representative – it requires more thought and more care for details – and deserves its own moment.

But Portantino, who has also received considerable notice for his legislation delaying school start times, is taking a big step in the right direction. California needs to rethink how its democracy works from top-to-bottom. And also from bottom to top.

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