California Assembly Democrats Seem Determined to Completely Eliminate Minor Party Candidates

Richard Winger
Editor of Ballot Access News

On April 15, the Assembly Elections Committee passed AB 372, a bill which seems motivated by a desire to completely rid the November ballot of minor party candidates.  Even though the bill has a Republican sponsor, it received no votes from either Republican member of the committee.  But it passed because 4 of the 5 Democrats on the committee voted for it.

Ever since the top-two system went into effect in 2011, there have been virtually no minor party candidates on the November ballot for Congress or partisan state office.  There were only three such minor party candidates in 2012, and just three in 2014.  All six of the minor party candidates were running in races in which only one person had filed to be on the primary ballot.  So, the minor party candidates noticed there was only one person on the primary ballot, and they all then filed to be write-in candidates in the primary.  In all six cases, the minor person then placed second in the June primary, with write-in votes, and were allowed on the November ballot.

AB 372 says if someone places first or second in the primary via write-in votes, that person still can’t be on the November ballot unless, after the primary is over, he or she pays a filing fee of 1% of the annual salary of the office (for US House and legislature), or 2% of the annual salary (for statewide office).  California does not ask declared write-in candidates to pay a filing fee, because in 1972 the State Supreme Court enjoined the filing fee for write-in candidates, in Steiner v Mihaly.

The bill’s author is Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, from the 5th assembly district in the Sierra Nevada counties.  He had a Libertarian opponent on the November 2014 ballot who had qualified via write-ins.  That Libertarian, 25-year-old Patrick Hogan, received 26% of the vote against Bigelow in November.  Assemblyman Bigelow feels that since he had to pay a filing fee to get his name on the June primary ballot, therefore Hogan should have been required to pay the same fee after the primary was over.

If AB 372 is signed into law, the effect will be that fewer minor party candidates file to be declared write-in candidates, in races in which only one person qualified to have his or her name on the primary ballot.  And that will mean even more one-candidate races in November.  One-candidate elections for important office like U.S. House and state legislature are not good policy, especially when other candidates want to run.  An analysis of the one-candidate partisan races from November 2012 reveals that, on the average, 25.3% of the voters who cast a ballot leave the ballot blank when there is only one candidate on the ballot.  This is especially so, given that California no longer allows write-in votes in November for Congress or partisan state office.

The four Democratic members of the Assembly Elections Committee who voted for AB 372, and who seem to like one-candidate elections, are Richard Gordon, Kevin Mullin, Henry Perea, and the committee chairman, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.  At the hearing, no one mentioned that the California Constitution itself would seem to block this bill.  Article 2, sec. 5(a) says, “The candidates who are the top two vote-getters at a voter-nominated primary election for a congressional or state elective office shall, regardless of party preference, compete in the ensuing general election.”  A mere statute cannot override the State Constitution, and the State Constitution seems to say that people who place first or second have a right to appear on the November ballot, whether they come up with $1,100 after the primary or not.

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