All candidates should take ballot titles seriously. The right title can help you win. The wrong title can do exactly the opposite.
Below a candidate’s name is their “ballot title,” ” ballot designation,” or ” designate occupation.”
Every state and county have its own rules about ballot titles
Some counties and states are more strict than others on what is allowable for a candidate to use as a ballot title.
Many states don’t even allow candidates the opportunity to describe themselves in a ballot title.
Here at The Campaign School, we are not election lawyers and can not advise you on the legalities of a given ballot title.
We strongly urge you to make the effort long before you run for office to find out what the rules are where you are running and to seek legal counsel if you are uncertain.
Why Ballot Titles Matter
A good or bad a ballot title is often the first and last thing a voter will see about you before voting.
Ballot titles tell voters who you are. They convey what you do for a living, your profession, your vocation. In large part they speak to your perspective, your values, and your abilities.
Voters generally associate a given occupation with a candidate’s ability do the job they are running for.
In judicial races, ballot titles are extremely important. Voters tend to elect prosecutors when voting for judge.
Even here in California where I live, most voters are generally not too happy about judges that let criminals off with light sentences, especially violent criminals. And I don’t know of any criminal defense attorney that has become a District Attorney.
Most judicial candidates try really hard to present themselves as tough on crime. “Violent Crimes Prosecutor” and “Violent Gang Prosecutor” often win these races because the voters wants a judge who will deal with criminals appropriately.
The same type of mental association applies in other races as well
So just as they make look at a tough prosecutor to be a good judge, they may look at an educator to serve will on a school board.
If balancing the city budget is important voters may look for someone with a successful financial background to do that job.
If thefts and burglaries are a public concern, having a ballot title of retired police officer or deputy sheriff would be very helpful.
Ballot Titles and Down Ticket Races
What I have observed in my many years of political consulting is that ballot titles matter most in low information races also know as the down ticket races.
By “down ticket” I am referring to judges, water boards, park and recreation seats, etc.
In most of these types of races, voters have little information on the candidates to begin with. We often refer to them as “low information”races.
In these “low information” races some voters will rely on your ballot titles to make a decision about your qualifications.
Here is Los Angeles County we generally have a half dozen or more judicial seats up for grabs every election cycle.
Judicial candidates generally have a difficult time raising money and most that run self-finance.
But running for office countywide in Los Angeles isn’t like running in most counties in America. It’s extremely expensive.
Even with LA County’s low turnout election (in June 2014 only about 765,000 people voted or 17 percent of the 4.5 million registered) the number of voters you must reach to win is staggering.
But even running for a large school board district, or water district is difficult.
The only sure way to reach every person that cast a vote through the sample ballot they receive in the mail and the actual ballot they review when casting their vote.
And frankly, most voters just are not as interested in who their Superior Court Judge, Community College Trustee, or Water Board Trustee is compared to their local Mayor, Councilmember, State Legislator, or Congressional Representative.
For some reason, unless there is a clear and present problem, voters just don’t seem that interested in these races and are happy with electing people that seem to have the experience to do the job.
Picking Your Ballot Title
Picking the right ballot title can be difficult.
First, it is best to choose a title that fits with the office.
Judge – prosecutor.
School Board Member – Educator/teacher.
Sheriff – police officer.
Second, there could be very specific issues or controversies in your community that you should be aware of.
If a school district has gone bankrupt voters might be looking for someone with a financial background to serve.
If there is a severe crime problem in your community voters may be looking for a police officer or prosecutor to serve as Mayor or on the City Council.
It is always smart to consider what voters want their elected officials and it would be wise to poll potential ballot titles.
Third, you probably are only allowed a few words to describe what you do.
I can’t remember running a campaign in a jurisdiction that allowed more than three words to describe a candidate’s occupation. I am not sure if this is the same everywhere but you should know this before you even start thinking about your ballot title.
But remember, you will be limited to what you actually do for a living. Meaning, you must get paid for what you claim your occupation is.
You can’t just make up a title for yourself.
But if you are a business owner that teaches at night at the local community college, and gets paid for it, you have a good chance of being able let to use “educator” or “teacher” as your ballot title.
If you are an attorney or accountant or engineer, or consultant of sometimes look into using “business owner” as your ballot title.
In Californa’s 2003 gubernatorial recall election the Actor Arnold Schwartenhager was able to use “Actor/Businessman” as his ballot title.
Whatever title you use, word it in the best way possible so it informs voters on your experiences and ability to serve them.
Don’t End Up In Court
Just this year, in Los Angeles County a candidate running for County Supervisor, was taken to court over his chosen ballot title.
Mitchell Englander is a Los Angeles City Councilmember who also volunteers as a reserve police officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Englander was running for County Supervisor, a seat that only a small portion exists inside the city of Los Angeles. His campaign felt they would get more mileage out of being a police officer as opposed to an LA City Councilmember.
He was taken to court over the legitimacy of his ballot title. The court agreed it was a misleading designation and forced Englander to change it. Englander subsequently went on to lose his election.
Going to court over a ballot title is never a good thing. It costs money and time to fight.
Losing in court over your ballot title is even worse. It makes voters feel you are not honest.
It is one thing to put your best foot forward. It is another to be dishonest about what you actually do.
Don’t mislead the voters into believing you are something you are not. It may cost you money in legal fees, your election and reputation.
And again, always seek legal counsel with regards to your ballot title.
So when picking your ballot title, always be honest about what you do and convey it is the most succinct and clear manner possible.
Your ballot title may only be a word or two, but in a close contest or down ticket race, it could make the difference between winning and losing the election.