Skip to Content (Press Enter)

Ballot Breakdown: Who Are These People?

Share This:
Shelly Arsneault
Shelly Arsneault, professor of political science and public administration

What’s the difference between the state controller and the state treasurer? What does the insurance commissioner do? Shelly Arsneault, Cal State Fullerton professor of political science and public administration, recently broke down the California ballot by explaining what each position does and why it is essential to vote for them. More information can also be found at

“California’s executive branch is more than just the governor,” Arsneault said. “That’s why it’s so complicated at times. We’re used to the federal system where the president makes appointments. But in California, we elect all these others.

“In some cases, even the lieutenant governor (he/she takes over if the governor has to leave office) may be of a different political party. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. On the ballot, voters will not only vote for the governor but seven other executive officers. In addition, there are four members of the Board of Equalization but voters will only vote for one, depending on the district they live in.”

The Governor

“The supreme executive power of this state is vested in the governor,” Arsneault explained. “The governor shall see that the law is faithfully executed.

“The State of the State address is important as it gets him out there, talking about what’s going on,” said Arsenault. “He sets his agenda but cannot make policy. That’s where the power of persuasion comes in as he tries to pitch policies he’d like to see enacted.”

California has a “professional legislature,” meaning that members don’t have another “day job.” The governor has the power to call back members when they’re out of session but that rarely happens since these elected officials meet regularly.

The governor also has the power to veto legislation, both general and by line item, meaning he can literally scratch out a line such as “I’ll pass this but we’re not spending this much money on it.”

The state budget originates with the governor each January and is signed by July 1, although that deadline isn’t always met.

The governor also makes multiple appointments that include administration officials, board and commission members, filling unexpired terms for courts and open U.S. Senate seats. (This happened when Kamala Harris was selected as vice president. It created a cascading event when Harris’s senate seat went to Alex Padilla which, in turn, opened his position of secretary of state to Shirley Weber.)

The governor may also serve as commander in chief of the California National Guard and can commute prison sentences (that doesn’t happen often and governors rarely go against parole board recommendations).

Lieutenant Governor

In this role, second to the governor in power, the lieutenant governor serves as president of the State Senate and can be brought in as a tie-breaker. Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis became the first woman to sign a piece of legislation in California in April (Newsom was out of town). California has never had a female governor.

The lieutenant governor also serves on many boards and commissions, rotates the chairs of the State Lands Commission (dealing with such issues as offshore oil drilling, land, etc.), and serves as chair of the California Commission for Economic Development, among other responsibilities.

Attorney General

The attorney general is often considered the second most important executive officer. They often run for governor (and don’t always have to do what the governor wants). In order to serve, they must have been an attorney (and passed the California bar exam) for at least five years.

The duties of this office include oversight of the Department of Justice, representing state interests in court cases, serving as legal council to state officers and agencies, and maintaining oversight of state attorneys and law enforcement agencies.

Some of the newer trends in this position include using the office for consumer and environmental protection, and suing the federal government. 

“This was a trend during the Obama administration because conservative states would sue the federal government over environmental issues,” Arsneault said. “Trump did the same thing. So in California, when environmental legislation was cut, our attorney general would dive in.”

Secretary of State

This is the chief clerk who yields great power including serving as the chief elections officer and overseeing the direct democracy process, including ballot initiatives. (Half of the states don’t have the ability to engage in direct democracy.) This representative ensures that petitions are correct before they can move forward. California has more than 20 million registered voters with voter information in 10 different languages.

The secretary of state also oversees state government records and archives as well as “safe at home” (this allows those who are in danger to get an alternative address so they can’t be easily tracked) and domestic partner registries.

This representative also grants charters to corporations, incorporates nonprofits and serves as a trustee of the California Museum, a major archive.

Controller (in some states referred to as Comptroller)

The state fiscal officer, in a sense, writes the paychecks for state employees. In addition, this representative maintains accounts of state government finances, oversees the unclaimed property division (this may include tax rebate/refunds that were never cashed it or unclaimed property at banks), audits state financial records, and oversees local government finance accounts and auditing procedures. (This includes special districts such as OCTA. There are 4,000 special districts in California. If a project name ends in “district” or “authority,” chances are it’s overseen by the controller.)

Members of the controller’s office also serve on more than 70 state boards. This includes everything from the Franchise Tax Board and Board of Equalization to CalPERS and CalSTRS pension boards

This representative is also responsible for a significant level of oversight and interactions relating to financial/fiscal matters.


Although considered less powerful than the controller, this individual serves as the state investment and finance banker, ensuring that California maintains a good credit rating (for borrowing money for capital projects such as infrastructure).

The treasurer also oversees the state’s retirement pension funds (an enormous job because of the sheer number of people represented in these systems) and oversees the sale and redemption of state bonds.

In addition, the treasurer chairs or serves on dozens of boards including CalPERS and CASTRS, California School Finance Authority, California Transportation Financing Authority, ScholarShare investment board and others.  

State Board of Equalization

There are four districts in California, and with one representative for each district. (Orange County is in District 4. Los Angeles is District 3 — it has its own district based on its size.) The state controller is the fifth member.

This board was created to regulate property assessment practices, oversee and collect taxes (including property taxes), maintain oversight on assessors, and even review alcohol taxes and fees.

Superintendent of Public Instruction

This representative oversees the Department of Education. It is the only nonpartisan executive office (individuals may have party affiliations, but they are not allowed to share them).

Although the primary focus is K-12 students, the superintendent also oversees some preschool and adult education. This representative also serves on the CSU Board of Trustees and the UC Board of Regents.

Insurance Commissioner

Until 1988, this representative was appointed by the governor. Since then, the commissioner is now elected by initiative. (The assumption was that previous insurance commissioners weren’t as responsive as they should have been and if this was an elected position, they would be more responsive.)

The insurance commissioner regulates the insurance industry (including home, auto, health, long-term care, workers compensation, pet insurance). This department also oversees agencies, brokers and agents; issues licenses; processes consumer complaints; investigates and prosecutes fraud.

Valerie Orleans