CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS ’92 : Candidates Try to Craft Creative Job Titles : Politics: Secretary of state’s office rejects attempts to use ballot designations as last-minute campaign ads.
When he filed for U.S. Senate, Republican Bruce Herschensohn asked to appear on Tuesday’s ballot as “congressional reformer/commentator.” For his part, Giovanni Graham of San Francisco, a state Senate hopeful from the Peace and Freedom Party, chose “peoples rights activist.”
But the California secretary of state’s office rejected both designations, saying they did not accurately describe what each candidate does for a living. So on Tuesday’s ballot, Herschensohn will appear as “television commentator/educator,” and Graham’s name will carry a more eye-catching label--"female impersonator.”
If there is anything state election officials dislike more than low voter turnout it is screening candidate occupation descriptions bound for the ballot. Many states do not allow such designations. Others only allow incumbents to identify their office. Some states allow designations only for competing candidates who have the same name. California is the only state to extend the privilege of listing occupation to all candidates, according to the Federal Election Commission.
That makes for myriad attempts to use the descriptions as last-minute campaign ads. When requested designations are ruled out of line, bitter arguments ensue, some of them winding up in court. And small wonder: With voters often going to the polls undecided or uninformed, many campaigns view the descriptions of their candidate’s occupation as serious business.
“It’s important,” said Nick Thimmesch II, a spokesman for the Herschensohn campaign. “Considering there’s so many undecideds, a lot of people may wait until they get into the booth to make a decision.”
California has allowed candidates to list their occupation on the ballot since the 1930s. Initially, experts say, candidates offered straightforward descriptions--but then they started getting creative.
Bruce Bolinger, a former state legislative consultant, has collected some colorful examples over the years. Among them: an Orange County telephone line repairman who listed himself as a “communications specialist,” a general contractor in environmentally conscious Sausalito who ran as a “semi-retired home craftsman,” and a Beverly Hills woman who tried to appear on the ballot as “Jewish mother.”
“It dawned on candidates that this law offered yet another opportunity for a campaign gimmick,” said Bolinger, now the clerk-recorder in Nevada County. “Some are very clever, you have to admit.”
This year the secretary of state’s office rejected more than 100 ballot designations offered by candidates for state and federal office, in most cases on grounds that they were misleading or did not depict a “profession, vocation or occupation,” as state law requires. The office does not check the occupations of every candidate, but responds to complaints or proposed wording that raises questions.
Some candidates apparently phrased their designations to push “hot” political buttons. With the Rodney G. King beating dominating the news, Marvin Evans of Los Angeles, a Democrat competing in the 48th Assembly District, sought the label “anti-police abuse advocate.” He wound up without a designation.
Herschensohn campaign officials agreed to refrain from spicing up the candidate’s job description with “congressional reformer,” a juicy designation given the public’s low regard for Congress these days.
Others candidates attempted intriguing combinations. Richard Morgan of Fresno, a Republican in the 19th Congressional District, declared himself a “pro-gun clergyman” and Frank Boeheim of Los Angeles, a Peace and Freedom candidate in the 33rd Congressional District chose “peace activist, cook.” Morgan will be listed as “rifle association manager,” and Boeheim as “cook.”
A few candidates were rebuffed despite filing the most matter-of-fact ballot designations. In an attempt to tap the low-income vote, Pamela Elizondo of Laytonville, a Peace and Freedom candidate in the 1st Assembly District, picked “welfare mother.” After she was rejected she took the secretary of state’s office to court and lost, ending up without a job description.
“They suggested ‘homemaker,’ but if I say that, how will people know where I get my income?” asked Elizondo, noting that she cannot afford advertising. “There are a lot of very poor people who need representation, and I need my ballot designation to draw attention to my campaign.”
Occupational designations must be three words or less except in the cases of elected officials, who can use however many words they need to describe the office they hold. But with anti-incumbent sentiment running high this year, incumbents have shown little interest in drawing attention to their posts.
“Incumbents are increasingly putting things like ‘legislator-farmer-businessman,’ ” said Tony Miller, chief deputy secretary of state. “They used to put ‘congressman’ or ‘full-time legislator,’ but that seems to be less popular.”
According to the secretary of state’s office, about half a dozen disputes over ballot designations go to court each election year. The rest are resolved in negotiations between the agency and the campaigns.
Under new legislation this year, all candidates who challenge the secretary of state’s rejection of their designations must do so in Sacramento Superior Court. Previously, those challenges were handled in Superior Courts throughout the state--leading, election officials say, to uneven results since no single court developed expertise in handling them.
Over the years, election law has been changed to reduce the chances for such conflicts. In the late 1970s, language was added prohibiting the use of such adjectives as outstanding , leading , expert , virtuous or eminent.
Other ballot designation words now considered taboo include parent , citizen , activist and advocate , though the term advocate is sometimes allowed when the candidate is an attorney. For the first time, state election officials distributed guidelines to city and county election officials this year addressing these and other points.
“These ballot designations are the single biggest headache we face as election officials. . . . Nothing complicates our lives more,” Miller said. “But with these measures we think we’ll have more uniformity.”
Even if that uniformity is achieved in state and federal races, there is still the matter of local contests. Miller acknowledges that sometimes local election officials have interpreted the law differently, permitting ballot designations that his office would not have allowed.
Miller need look no further than Sacramento, where Tuesday’s mayoral ballot will list one candidate, Richard Francis, as “liberty interest protector.”