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Assembly committee debates potential costs of open primary initiative

by Greg Lucas, published

Four county registrars of voters told an Assembly committee March 2 that their costs of printing and processing ballots would increase if Californians approve Proposition 14, the so-called “open primary” initiative on the June ballot.  The informational hearing of the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee was dominated by Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, an Oakland Democrat, who voted against placing the open primary measure on the ballot and has created a campaign committee – Swanson’s Ballot Measure Committee to Oppose Prop. 14.

Although the committee chair, Paul Fong, a Mountain View Democrat, said the purpose of the hearing was to discuss potential costs from Proposition 14’s passage and not the merits of the proposal, Swanson used the public hearing to attack the measure.  “One way to prevent these costs is to vote ‘no’ on Proposition 14,” Swanson told the registrars testifying before the committee, which was conducted in the state Capitol.

Proposition 14 would create a primary election in which any voter, regardless of party affiliation, could vote for any candidate. The top two vote getters – regardless of party – would appear on the November general election ballot.

Much of the cost concerns raised by registrars focused on SB 6, companion legislation to Proposition 14 that would take effect if voters approve the ballot measure in June. The bill requires a variety of changes in election law to accommodate a “Top Two” voting system, including disclosure on registration cards that voters can cast ballots for any candidate and redesigning candidate lists and nomination papers.

“If the top two finishers are Republicans why would Democrats show up to vote?” Swanson asked.

The Secretary of State’s office said the bill required them to conduct voter education but to do so within its existing budget.  The California Independent Voter Project, which helped create the California Independent Voter Network website, drafted the legislation upon which Proposition 14 is based.  Lengthier ballots and increased postage were the chief additional costs cited by the registrars.  Jill LaVine, Sacramento County’s registrar, said the proposition would require four ballot cards, instead of the two she used in the June 2006 primary, increasing election costs from $3 million to $4.3 million, LaVine estimated.  A longer ballot would require three more hours of election-night scanning,” said Deborah Seiler, San Diego County’s registrar of voters, at a cost of $12,000. 

The new voting system could also require more training of poll workers.  “We would add between one and two ballot cards,” Seiler said, increasing election costs by $1 million – 75 cents for each registered voter in the county.  Steve Weir, Contra Costa County’s registrar, said costs for his county would climb $680,000 although he said the county’s general election ballot might be shorter if Proposition 14 passes. “We would hope you pay any incremental costs,” Weir told state lawmakers.

Swanson used the comment to criticize the initiative.  “Counties would expect the state to pay for these additional costs. The state will pay potentially tens of millions of dollars,” Swanson said.

Backers of Proposition 14 – and SB 6 – said neither increase state costs.  “Senate Bill 6 is a measure that ensures Californians are informed of their right to register to vote with ‘no party preference’ if they should choose to do so under an open primary system,” said Amanda Fulkerson, a spokeswoman for the “yes” campaign.  “Providing information to voters about their options is already required by law and will not increase costs of elections,” she said.

Supporters of the initiative point to a Senate analysis of the proposition and one of SB 6, which say neither has a fiscal impact. “(Proposition 14) would change how elections officials prepare, print, and mail ballot materials. In some cases, these changes could increase these state and county costs,”  said the Legislative Analyst of the ballot measure.

“The direct costs and savings resulting from this measure would be relatively minor and would tend to offset each other. Accordingly, we estimate that the measure’s fiscal effects would not be significant for state and local governments.”

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