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Members of O.C. School Board could face bigger, more liberal electorate

A proposal to finalize Orange County Board of Education seats in the November general election, not a primary election, soon could be taken up by the California legislature.

If approved, SB-286, backed by state Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, would force the five-member board to face a bigger and more liberal block of voters than they do now in order to keep their seats.

In recent years, the board – which doesn’t oversee any school district but does carry the symbolic power of the name “Orange County” – has waged legal fights and held public hearings to promote conservative views on issues such as the pandemic and critical race theory. In a county where voter registration data shows Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 4 percentage points, conservatives hold a 4-1 edge on the Board of Education.

Min, a law professor at UC Irvine who was elected in 2020, said Thursday that clarity, not the board’s conservative lean, is why he’s backing the idea of switching the election to November. The bill passed two Senate committees this week and soon could be heard by Appropriations before going to the full state Senate and, perhaps, the legislature.

“When I was campaigning I heard from a number of folks, county-wide, who said they always felt confused by our elections.”

While most federal, state and local offices are selected in two stages, with run-off elections held in the primary and smaller-field finals held in November, a few seats in many California counties are finalized in primaries. In Orange County, those seats include the district-based Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools, with neither office even appearing on a November ballot. A few other elected positions, such as Orange County Sheriff, can be settled in a primary if the top candidate tops 50% of the vote.

“It’s a confusing situation,” Min said. “I’ve heard from voters who ask which (are resolved) in the primary and which (are resolved) in the general?”

To fix that, Min said he proposed a bill last year that would have solidified most California elections in November. But when that idea faced resistance from legislators in other parts of the state, he winnowed it to apply only to the Orange County Board of Education. Technical issues, he added, kept him from including the School Superintendent job in this year’s bill.

“There’s no reason the final vote shouldn’t take place in November,” Min said. “Primaries are supposed to shape the choices you have in the general, but the general is supposed to be the election that matters.”

The November electorate is almost always bigger, and more liberal-leaning, than the one that votes in primaries. In 2020, for example, nearly 1.6 million people voted in the general election in Orange County, nearly twice the turnout of that year’s March primary.

Min noted that voters in November, but not in primaries, tend to be younger, less White and less affluent than the people who vote in both primary and general elections.

It’s unclear if a changed election cycle would change the make-up of the Board of Education. Trustee Mari Barke, who represents the second district, said Thursday that the proposal caught her by surprise.

“I’m wondering what the motivation is behind the bill, and wondering why only one district in the state is being singled out,” Barke said.

But Barke added that running in November wouldn’t change her campaign strategy or her message to voters.

“I think you walk to win,” Barke said. “When you meet people, tell them who you are and that you look out for children, that’s what wins elections.”

Source: Orange County Register

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