A progressive won the District 3 supervisor race after trailing for nearly two weeks. How?

Justin Cummings at local SEIU headquarters on election night.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Justin Cummings trailed Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson by nearly 5 percentage points after Election Day. More than a week later, he pulled ahead, giving credence to the local axiom that Santa Cruz progressives just vote later.

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Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson’s election night bash at a supporter’s home on Nov. 8 was high-energy and optimistic. Guns N’ Roses played from the speakers, glasses of wine flowed, shots followed. In a room full of Kalantari-Johnson supporters, the mood was celebratory as the District 3 Santa Cruz County Supervisor hopeful found herself nearly 5 percentage points ahead by the night’s final tally.

Over on the Westside, those initial results appeared to suck the air out of the SEIU Local 521 headquarters. Kalantari-Johnson’s opponent, Justin Cummings, broke the silence with a “Damn.” After a pause, Cummings, slouching over a phone screen, gathered himself.

The Santa Cruz County Clerk’s office finished its vote count on Tuesday and certified the results of the Nov. 8...

“When I ran for [Santa Cruz] City Council in 2018, at the end of the first night when the votes came in, I was in fourth place,” Cummings said. “By the final count, I was in first. So we’re just going to have to watch.”

Cummings apparently knew something. As more mail-in ballots were tallied in the weeks following Election Day, Kalantari-Johnson, viewed as the pragmatist, watched her 5-point margin tighten to her more progressive opponent. By last Thursday, Cummings had pulled ahead by a handful of votes. By 4 p.m. Monday, with only 817 ballots left to be counted throughout the county, Cummings led by a comfortable margin of 543 votes. Two hours later, Kalantari-Johnson conceded the race and Cummings declared victory.

So what happened? How did Cummings pull off a nearly 1,000-vote swing in the roughly 13,100 ballots counted after election night? Local politicos say this is nothing new, whether in Santa Cruz or elsewhere. Progressives vote late. The data shows it. Although the hypotheses around this idea are many, they all funnel into the same conclusion: It’s the way it’s always been. Maybe it’s the way it will always be.

“People who are on the super-progressive side are often younger and tend to be more cynical about elections and participation in them,” said Mike Rotkin, a politics lecturer at UC Santa Cruz. Rotkin says it’s been this way in local Santa Cruz elections since at least the 1970s. “They tend not to vote when they get their ballot, whereas the people who are more pragmatic turn their ballots in when they get them.”

Outgoing District 3 Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, the man Cummings and Kalantari-Johnson are vying to replace, suggested a theory that “maybe there is a psychological correlation between political beliefs and procrastination habits.” Disclaimer: Coonerty is not a psychologist.

Justin Cummings (left) and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson at a Lookout candidate forum in October.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Later voters also tend to be lower-information voters. Those of us who live and breathe this stuff, we know who we’re going to vote for,” said Coonerty, who endorsed Kalantari-Johnson. “For those who don’t, voting is on their to-do list, and they end up filling out a ballot on Election Day. The fact that [Cummings] was a high-profile mayor during a critical time gives him name recognition and that probably gave him an advantage.”

Although the race for District 3 supervisor was the only one where later returns flipped fates, the progressives-are-polling-place-procrastinators theory showed up in other local races as well. The leads held by more pragmatic candidates on election night, such as Fred Keeley for Santa Cruz mayor and Renée Golder for Santa Cruz City Council District 6, dwindled in the weeks following but ultimately held up. The same played out with Measure N, the defeated empty-homes tax proposal.

Since California began sending mail-in ballots to every eligible voter in 2020 — instead of requiring voters to request, with an acceptable reason, a mail-in ballot — most voters in Santa Cruz vote by mail, according to Santa Cruz County Clerk Tricia Webber.

“Traditionally, people who voted by mail were the longtime, older, more conservative residents. Election Day voters tended to be the progressives,” said Jeffrey Smedberg, founder of the progressive political organization Santa Cruz for Bernie. “People who are more unstable in their lives don’t get around to voting. It’s a last-minute thing. They have other priorities in their lives.”

In this new era of mail-in voting, that tradition appears to hold true. However, those more progressive, Election Day voters are now sticking their ballots in the mailbox instead of heading to a polling place. The result? A weekslong extension of the time it takes for the county clerk to receive, verify and tally those ballots.

More than any other factor, Santa Cruz County Clerk Tricia Webber says voter behavior is the reason for the prolonged...

Same-day registration also plays into this. By Friday, the clerk’s office still had to count nearly 1,300 same-day registration ballots, which require a thorough vetting process. Smedberg, who was an election official at the lone UCSC polling place on Election Day, says he saw “a lot” of students who registered on Election Day to vote in local elections. Coonerty estimated that the county’s same-day registration ballots would “disproportionately” come from that historically ultra-progressive enclave known as the UCSC campus.

Bodie Shargel, a student activist with UCSC’s Young Democratic Socialists of America, says Cummings and other candidates expended a lot of energy in getting students registered to vote locally. The Felton native similarly attributed the swing to the way things are around here.

“It seems like a rule for Santa Cruz,” Shargel said. “Progressives will always do better than it appears in the first batch of ballots.”


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