Do Voters Care About Down-Ballot Races?

 (Alan Toth/KQED)

As part of our election series “All Politics is Local,” we’re looking at some of the races that voters will find lower down on their ballots.

We hear plenty about the presidential election, but the candidates who win these less publicized races -- for things like BART board, school board and Superior Court judge -- could have a more direct, tangible effect on our lives and communities.

But not everyone who goes to the polls actually votes in every race.

According to a KQED analysis of data on voter turnout, just about everyone who voted in San Francisco in 2012  cast a ballot for president. But when it came to voting on down-ballot races --  contests for local office that generally appear lower on the ballot -- many opted out. Only seven in 10 San Franciscans voted for BART director in 2012. And just half voted in the judicial races in 2014.

To make sense of this trend, we sat down with Kim Alexander, director of the California Voter Foundation. She's urging voters to do their homework on those local contests.

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"Even though the presidential election is the race that is getting the most attention, at the end of the day the politicians that are going to have the greatest impact on your life are the people that represent you at the local level," Alexander said.

But why are voters less likely to vote on those down-ballot measures?

Alexander says it's because news and information on down-ballot contests are few and far between. This is especially true when compared with the flood of news coverage of presidential candidates, and even all the information available on state propositions.

"If there's no campaigning on the part of the candidate, no communication to the voters, then the voter has no way to even evaluate whether that person would deserve their vote again in the future," Alexander said.

It turns out that getting that information to voters can be costly. Counties can charge candidates hundreds or even thousands of dollars to place a statement in the official printed sample ballot.

"We think it's really important that politicians, when they run for office, make a public statement to the voters saying what they will do if they are elected," Alexander said. "It's a really important accountability tool, just as elections themselves are an important accountability tool."

But here's the thing: If fewer people are voting in a race, the votes of those who do cast ballots carry more weight, said Alexander. So if you do make it all the way through your ballot, your vote may give you a bigger voice.

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