Should candidates be able to hide their incumbency?

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

Photo courtesy of Flickr user lynnepet

At least 10 sitting California state lawmakers running for re-election or new seats avoided disclosing their political office on the ballot by, instead, self-identifying as small business owners, farmers, or physicians. Maybe they should brush up on their Shakespeare, as he correctly points out, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Or was it “An incumbent by any other name would smell like a lawmaker…”?

These days, voters seem to trust politicians only as far as they can throw them, and they sure wish they could throw them out of Sacramento. Lawmakers heard the message loud and clear; poll after poll show Legislature approval ratings near all-time lows. Rather than heed the voters’ call for transparency and accountability, these 10 state lawmakers hid their incumbency from the ballot in order to get back to Sacramento. 

In the wake of redistricting and the passage of Prop 14, ballot designations are proving to be more important than usual this election season. The top-two open primary has lessened the significance of party affiliations and newly drawn districts have left many incumbents with brand new constituencies. 

Campaigning in unfamiliar territory, many lawmakers are turning to alternative ballot designations to increase their chances of attracting undecided voters. All too often, voters rely solely on name recognition or their impression of a candidate’s ballot description to inform their decision at the polls.

It should be noted that ballot designations cannot legally be false or deceiving; it sounds like common sense, but a candidate must actually be a physician or small business owner to say so on the ballot.  But remember, being a legislator is a full time job in California. And shouldn’t current lawmakers be proud of their record?

According to a PPIC poll conducted this month, just one in five California voters (20 percent) approve of the job the Legislature is doing.  With an abysmal approval rating, which is only set to decline further as the deficit grows and the budget fight heats up, it’s no wonder several Legislators running for reelection are not disclosing their political office on the ballot.

“It’s not something that I’m that proud of, being a California legislator these days, quite frankly”, two-term Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, told the Associated Press.

Berryhill, elected to the California State Assembly in 2008 and currently running for California’s 5th Senate District, will be identified, not as an “Assemblyman”, but as a “farmer” on the June 5th primary ballot.

Other, less candid, lawmakers blame the three-word limit as the reason for omitting their incumbency from their ballot titles.  

Don’t be fooled, there is a workaround the restriction.  An additional 20 candidates are combining their public and private positions with descriptions such as, “Businessman/Assemblymember” or “Farmer/Senator”. 

Attempting to intentionally mislead the electorate strikes right at the heart of voter distrust in California. With disapproval ratings on the rise, lawmakers should be working towards earning back voter trust by being transparent and accountable to their constituents instead of distorting the facts for their own benefit. Only when lawmakers stop playing such games will “legislator” and “incumbent” begin to cease being such dirty words.   


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg