California voters want term limits for D.A.s and sheriffs, Berkeley poll finds

Los Angeles, CA - Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, left, and Sheriff Robert Luna hold a news conference at the Hall of Justice in downtown L.A. on Wedensday, Sept. 20, 2023,t o announce charges against Kevin Cataneo Salazar, who is accused of gunning down Sheriff's Deputy Ryan Clinkunbroomer in Palmdale. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón follows Sheriff Robert Luna offstage after a news conference at the Hall of Justice in downtown L.A. in September. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

A large majority of California voters support term limits for local elected offices, including county supervisors, district attorneys and sheriffs, according to a new poll released Tuesday, which some experts say could signal a desire for new leadership in the November elections.

Of more than 5,000 registered voters surveyed, the poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that roughly three-quarters of respondents said they would like to see term limits enacted or shortened for county supervisors (77%), district attorneys (77%) and sheriffs (73%).

The poll, conducted by Berkeley researchers on behalf of the Evelyn and Walter Jr. Haas Fund, found bipartisan support for restricting how long local key local officials can serve, with majorities of Republicans, Democrats and nonpartisan voters all in favor. The preferred limit among respondents would be two four-year terms, the poll found.

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Among Los Angeles County voters, 78% said they strongly or somewhat favor term limits while 10% said they strongly or somewhat oppose them. L.A. County supervisors can serve a maximum of three four-year terms, though most counties don't have those limits.

Alameda County's Keith Carson, first elected in 1992 and set to retire at the end of this term, is the state's longest serving county supervisor.

The L.A. County Superior Court voided term limits for the sheriff in 2004 and for the district attorney in 2006, according to county documents. The longest serving district attorney in the state is Michael Ramsey in Butte County, where he's served for more than 36 years.

L.A. County Dist. Atty George Gascón is up for reelection in November after serving his first term. He unseated incumbent Jackie Lacey, who served from 2012 to 2020.

"Term limits are universally popular," said political consultant Brian Van Riper in an interview. "I think people generally want to reel in their elected officials a little bit and term limits sound like a good idea."

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Los Angeles voters have been signaling that they're ready for change, Van Riper added.

"Locally in the city of L.A., there's been incumbents defeated recently, which in years prior was was somewhat unheard of," he said. "Maybe voters are tired of politics as usual."

Beyond terms limits, the Berkeley poll looked at a broad range of issues.

Two out of three respondents said there should be a requirement for the top two finishers in primary elections to face off against each other in the general election. Under the current system for county supervisor, district attorney and sheriff, primary winners who receive more than 50% of the vote in a primary automatically win the race.

According to California Common Cause, 53 of the 57 contests for district attorney in the 2022 election cycle were decided in the primary. For county supervisor, 80 of the 129 contests ended after the primary.

“California’s current approach to county primary elections results in incumbent supervisors, district attorneys and sheriffs consistently winning reelection in low-turnout primary elections,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein executive director of California Common Cause.

“It also keeps low-profile county offices that are critically important permanently under the public radar,” he said. “Evidently, Californians want county elections to be run in a way that will result in more representative electorates and representative elected.”

The Berkeley poll found that 47% of voters think it would be better to hold local elections at the same time as presidential elections, which usually draw a higher turnout. Twenty-seven percent said they would prefer local elections be held at the same time as gubernatorial elections, while 26% had no opinion.

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California voter turnout in the June 2022 primary was 27% compared to 41% for that year's November general election. In 2020, when the presidential race was on the ballot, statewide turnout reached 70%.

The poll also found that three-quarters of voters believe it is important for their local elected officials to reflect the diversity of their community. Forty-nine percent said it was very important and 25% said it was somewhat important.

Voters of color were more likely to value representation in their local elected officials, the poll found. Sixty-seven percent of Black voters and 57% of Latino voters said it was very important for elected officials to reflect the diversity of the community. Only 41% of white voters said the same.

“People deserve to see themselves and their values reflected in their local elected officials,” said Angélica Salceda, director of the ACLU of Northern California’s Democracy and Civic Engagement Program. “When leaders mirror the diversity of their communities, it fosters trust and a sense of equitable representation.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.