Business Assemblymember Businessman and a cloud of other popular ballot designations
A word cloud generated using the ballot designations of 670 candidates across California. Word cloud generator by Jason Davies.

In summary

With pithy descriptions by their names on the ballot, candidates can tell voters a little more about themselves.

When Californians step into their voting booths on Election Day—finally shut off from the daily deluge of campaign ads—every candidate will still have at least one last word. And a maximum of three.

Right on the ballot, just below his or her name, California law affords each person running for office a designation. Like an ultra-pithy, last-minute advertisement, this short biographical description gives candidates an opportunity to tell voters just a little bit more.

For those who don’t know that Gavin Newsom is the lieutenant governor, for example, they’ll find out on the ballot, along with the fact that he’s a “businessman.”

Likewise, voters in one Assembly district may learn that their assemblyman, Heath Flora, also moonlights as a farmer and a firefighter, according to his designation.

And voters across the state will find a “retired steam engineer” running for treasurer, a “puppeteer/musician” for governor and an ocean of small-business owners, doctors and teachers.

People say first impressions are everything, but in California politics, sometimes the last impression matters most.

“A lot of thought and debate goes into this every two years,” said Dave Gilliard, a Republican political consultant. Thought, debate, public-opinion research and, when all else fails, litigation.

Voters may be guided by a rational assessment of each candidate’s stances on a constellation of public-policy issues. But sometimes trivial details can be decisive. Party designation, name recognition and even the order of names on the ballot have all been shown to influence electoral outcomes.

So in what has become a venerable California tradition, the spring before every election is lawsuit season. Candidates sue to block ballot designations that may bend the rules and might give their rivals a competitive edge.

This year, the California Secretary of State’s office has been party to at least eight lawsuits related to ballot designations, and the recipient of an untold number of written complaints.

In a crowded inland Orange County congressional district where 17 candidates are competing to replace Republican Rep. Ed Royce, who is retiring, front-runner Gil Cisneros (“Education/Veterans Advocate”) brought a suit forcing a fellow Democrat, Sam Jammal, to change his designation from “civil rights attorney” to “clean energy businessman.”

State law requires candidates to list their current job, or one they held within the last year. Jammal had practiced voting-rights law until the late 2000s, but most recently he worked as an attorney for SolarCity, a solar-energy company.

In another Orange County district, this one along the coast, the state forced Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chávez to switch his designation from “Retired Marine Colonel” to “Assemblymember” after a Marine veteran in the district filed a complaint. Chavez, who is described on his campaign website as “one tough Marine,” retired from the corps in 2001. He is running to succeed Rep. Darrell Issa, who is not running again.

And in a district stretching east and south of Sacramento, into the Sierra Nevada, a judge stripped Democratic candidate Jessica Morse of her chosen designation, “National Security Strategist,” after Regina Bateson, another Democrat in the race, sued. When the judge also deemed Morse’s two alternative choices inadmissible, the candidate opted to be on the ballot without any designation at all.

“Some people will say this is nitpicking,” said Bateson, an M.I.T. political science professor who will be listed as a “Military Security Analyst.” “The issue here is that I think the rule of law matters. Everyone running for office in California is expected to abide by the same set of laws.”

Morse has worked for both the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department, but not since 2015.

“Jessica Morse is proud of her years of service in national security, working on behalf of our country at home and abroad, including Iraq,” said Makaiah Mohler, deputy campaign manager for Morse. “We are disappointed to see another campaign resorting to petty political games.”

Morse will not be the only candidate without a designation beneath her name this year. There are 19 others, running for congressional, state legislative and statewide office. But she is by far the highest-profile.

This year, she has outraised her Republican opponent, GOP Congressman Tom McClintock, and in February, she won the endorsement of the state Democratic Party. How she fares in the June 7 primary may provide an answer to the question: Are these three words on the ballot really worth all the fuss?

In high-profile races, where most people enter the voting booth with an opinion about the various candidates, the answer is probably not. But virtually every other contest aside from the presidential race is a “low-information election,” says Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

So far, that even includes this year’s governor’s race. According to a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, only a little over half of likely voters—the subset of the population presumed to be most engaged—are paying either “very” or “fairly” close attention to the gubernatorial contest.

“A critical mass of people do not encounter their candidates until they get their ballot,” said Levinson. “So what they’re looking at is just what’s on the ballot and that is: Which party do you prefer, how do you describe yourself and what’s your name?”

And particularly in crowded primaries, or in nonpartisan races where voters can’t simply vote on a party line, an unknown “Nurse” will probably beat out the anonymous “Marketing Consultant” everytime, said Brian Hildreth, an election lawyer at the Sacramento firm Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk who has helped candidates challenge their rivals’ ballot designations.

“When you get down to county supervisor, when you get down to auditor, or even to member of the Assembly or member of the state Senate, …they might look to someone who is a ‘teacher’ or an ‘educator’ or a ‘taxpayer advocate,’ ” he said.

Unlike political ads and other forms of influence, ballot designations must refer to either a candidate’s current or recent elected position or some other “profession,” “vocation” or “occupation.”

What distinguishes an acceptable “vocation” from a prohibited “avocation”? It’s not always easy to say for sure, but state regulations are crystal clear on these points: “parent,” “priest” and “teacher” are sufficiently time-consuming to be proper designations. “Wife,” “husband” and “philosopher” are not.

Whatever the job description, it can take only three words, though incumbent positions are exempt. Hence Xavier Becerra’s long-winded “Appointed Attorney General of the State of California.” California place names are considered one word.

And unfortunately for candidates whose most impressive credentials lie behind them, “ex-“ and “former” are banned modifiers. That’s bad news for gubernatorial candidates Antonio Villaraigosa, the ex-mayor of Los Angeles, and Delaine Eastin, a former Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Or make that Villaraigosa, the “Public Policy Advisor,” and Eastin, the “Educator/Youth Advocate.”

For Villaraigosa, that label may have cost him in the polls. Between February and late March, Villaraigosa dipped dramatically in public-opinion surveys, as most pollsters began describing him by his approved ballot designation rather than as the former Los Angeles mayor.

Given that so few people are paying attention to the race and that Villaraigosa hasn’t been mayor since 2013, the switch in job description is probably part of the explanation, said Dean Bonner, an associate survey director at PPIC.

”It’s an environment where I could see the title playing some role,” he said. “Did it contribute to it? My feeling is that it contributed some.”

There’s a subtle art to crafting the right designation: appealing to voters’ sympathies and papering over unpopular occupations. It’s all about knowing your audience, said Gilliard.

“Republicans tend to favor business and law enforcement, Democrats tend to favor educators,” he said. Nurses and doctors also tend to do well overall, especially among liberals.

While most elected lawmakers seem to believe there’s a benefit in touting one’s credentials as an incumbent, not every politician does. Assemblyman Jim Patterson (“Businessman/Broadcast Executive’) and state Sen. Andy Vidak (“Farmer/Small Businessman”) both eschew any mention of their elected status. The two incumbents are Republicans from the Central Valley, the region where approval of the California Legislature is lowest, according to a recent poll.

Republican U.S. Rep. David Valadao (“Farmer/Small Businessman”) is the only California member of Congress whose elected status won’t be on the ballot. His district overlaps with both Vidak’s and Patterson’s.

Meanwhile, there’s a bipartisan distrust of lawyers, said Gilliard, which may explain why candidates from the legal profession often tack on softening qualifiers. “Workers’ rights attorney,” “consumer protection attorney,” or “attorney/mother” are all on California ballots this year. And for lawyers who own their own firms, he said, consultants will sometimes suggest omitting the J.D. entirely and casting themselves as yet another “small business owner.”

People have a warm feeling about small- business owners, he said. “That ballot designation is used by everybody from corporate giants to law-firm partners to the hardware-store owners.”

In fact, 34 candidates, or one in 20 of those vying for statewide, legislative, tax board or congressional office in 2018, have designated themselves a “small business owner.” Lump together all business-related labels (“small business woman,” “independent business investor” and every other combination of words that imply a scrappy entrepreneurialism), and 14 percent of all candidates claim some connection to business ownership, making it the most popular professional category.

The descriptions are “arguably more important than one of these expensive, 30-second sound bites about a candidate that don’t really tell you anything other than that they like rainbows and sunshine,” Levinson said. “That’s why there’s so much litigation over this. Because people understand that this is the name of the game.”

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Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...