Final count shows Thurmond winner of California schools chief race by 187,000 votes

December 9, 2018

Tony Thurmond at a he audience after the forum at the USC Rossier School of Education in March, 2018

In a powerful display of how millions of uncounted ballots changed the final tally, Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, has decisively won the race for the state superintendent of public instruction by about 187,000 votes, after trailing his opponent Marshall Tuck by about 86,000 votes in the Nov. 6 election day count.

The count was completed by Dec. 7, as required by law, and more than a month after the election itself.  The results came more than three weeks after Tuck had already conceded the race, and Thurmond declared victory in a race that was notable for both record spending and voter participation.

In percentage terms, the race was still a close one.  Thurmond earned 50.9 percent  of the vote, compared to Tuck’s 49.1 percent, a margin of 1.8 percentage points.  Out of the over 10.5 million votes cast,  Thurmond garnered 5,383,912 votes to Tuck’s 5,198,788 votes.

A remarkable a feature of the race was how the intense organizing efforts to turn out Democrats to oust Republicans in congressional seats across the state propelled a record turnout.

An astonishing 4.5 million more people voted for the state superintendent  than did in 2014, the last time California’s were asked to vote to fill the seat.   In November 2014, a little over 6 million people voted in the race — compared to 10.5 million  this November.

The vote tally in the governor’s race won by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was even higher. Nearly 12.5 million people voted for governor, compared to only 7.3 million in 2014, an increase of 5.1 million more voters voters.

Another notable feature of the state superintendent vote was that nearly 1.9 million fewer voters cast their ballot for the superintendent’s post than did for governor.  That reflected the fact that despite all the heavy spending on the race, the schools chief race is a relatively low profile one, and as in past years many voters chose to vote for governor, but then abstain from voting for the school’s chief post.

However, as a proportion of the total vote, the drop off in votes was less dramatic than in many previous years.  In 2010, for example, nearly 2.4 million voters chose to vote for governor, and to abstain from voting for the state superintendent.

It took over four weeks to go through the 4.1  million ballots that remained uncounted after the late night tallies on election day.  These consisted principally of mail-in ballots that could not be counted on election day or ballots that were postmarked before election day but arrived after that date.  A smaller number consisted of provisional ballots issued to voters at polling places on election day for a range of reasons.

Because the winner of the race had already been declared, there was no suspense in the final count, and the posting by the Secretary of State’s office last Friday drew little attention.

But the lessons that can be drawn from the race for future campaigns are considerable.   Thurmond’s race demonstrated the power of mail-in and provisional ballots to determine the outcome of a race. The superintendent’s race is a non-partisan race, and both Thurmond and Tuck are Democrats, and both received Democratic support. But Thurmond was the candidate favored by the California Democratic Party, who endorsed him, as did leading Democratic lawmakers, numerous Democratic mayors, the California Teachers Association and other labor unions.

The race was also characterized by record spending, most of it coming from independent expenditure committees.  These are committees set up to back a candidate of their choice, and are permitted to raise unlimited funds for activities like television advertising, although they are barred from coordinating what they do with the candidate they are backing.

The issue of charter schools was not a major issue on the campaign trail itself. But the race turned into a proxy war between California’s teachers unions and wealthy charter school advocates, many of whom have opposed the teachers unions on a variety of issues. The charter advocates contributed at least $22 million that ended up in an independent expenditure committee set up to back Tuck, who at one time had run a network of charter schools in Los Angeles.

According to the California Target Book, $61,170,451 was spent on the race through the election. That was nearly double the $31 million spent in 2014 when Tuck ran against incumbent state superintendent Tom Torlakson.

Tuck and his supporters outspent Thurmond by an over two to one margin.  But Thurmond benefited from a massive blue wave that carried Democrats to victory in conservative Republican strongholds in Orange County and the Central Valley.


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