5 Ways In Which The Tax Return-for-Ballot-Access Law Is a Mistake

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Why did Gov. Gavin Newsom sign the bill requiring presidential candidates to release five years of tax returns to qualify for the primary ballot?

 Maybe Gov. Gavin Newsom knows something about President Trump or elections that the rest of us don’t know. He has to talk to Trump at times, and maybe he sees a leverage point that we just can’t.

Maybe he just thinks that, in the face of a lying bully like the president, California should punch back at every chance it gets. Or maybe he thinks he can carry the day by pointing out that Trump could make the ballot simply by doing the right thing and releasing his tax returns—thus casting more attention on the question about personal corruption that dog Trump. Maybe he’s just trying to tie down Trump’s attention and legal resources in a state that the president’ can’t win.

But, based on what the rest of us know, Newsom’s bill signing is a large and dangerous mistake. In fact, it’s an error in so many ways that I’ll just list the top five below. (Joel Fox suggested the potential for political mischief as one in this space, but that doesn’t even make my top five).

  • 1. The bill plainly violates the state and federal constitutions. The U.S. constitution has clear requirements for presidential eligibility, and releasing tax returns aren’t one of them. What’s more, the state constitution requires that generally recognized candidates be on the ballot. Trump is an awful person and president, but he is clearly a candidate.
  • 2. The bill disenfranchises GOP voters and could reduce turnout. The fact that many Republicans want to vote for a person such as Trump is terrible. But just because you want to keep a white supremacist crook in office doesn’t mean you forfeit your voting rights. Worse still, keeping Trump off the ballot could reduce turnout. That’s not a good look for the state.
  • 3. The bill damages California’s hard-earned reputation for being open, fair, and inclusive when it comes to elections. Our reputation is under attack by Trumpists and California haters who lie about unauthorized immigrants’ voting. Our state is very fair in how it conducts elections (even if we can’t get the labels of what’s a primary and what’s not right), and when you’re keeping a state antagonist off the ballot, you raise doubts about our fairness
  • 4. It gives Trump a cudgel to use against us. Yes, I recognize that Trump, being unbound by truth or reality, is likely to make up lies against us, so we can’t really control how he attacks us. But why give him one more?
  • 5. This adds to the real risks of post-election disaster next year, including civil conflict that could resemble civil war.

I am deathly afraid of the following scenario. Trump narrowly loses the election but maintains he won, claiming massive fraud against him in California and other places. And then he refuses to leave office, creating a national crisis in which Trump and the Democratic winner both are giving orders and acting as president. Massive protests and even violence ensue, as left and right take to the streets claiming to be defending democracy against a coup by the other side.

In such a conflict, it will be vital for election systems in our state, and the other 49, to be above reproach.  But will California’s statements that we conduct things fairly be less credible if we’ve passed a law that sought to keep Trump off the ballot?

 

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