Earlier this year, the Napa County Board of Supervisors considered a proposal that would require local political parties to reimburse county election offices for conducting private central committee elections. However, Napa County election officials recently backed off after party leaders threatened litigation.
Political parties have successfully argued in court that they are private organizations, therefore the state has no right to tell them how to conduct their nomination proceedings. In fact, the California Democratic Party successfully relied on the private right to control their primary elections in the landmark case California Democratic Party v. Jones in 2000 (holding that the State of California could not force political parties to allow non-members to participate in their primary elections).
In Wilson v. San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee (2009), the California Second District Court of Appeal stated that county central committees are part of the political parties internal and private affairs, which may not be subject to state control. As a result of the decision, the State of California is no longer allowed to enforce the process by which party central committee elect their members — BUT, the state still administers and funds the process.
So where does that leave the state’s county registrars of voters? (1) They have to first ask the political parties how they want to conduct their central committee elections, and (2) The registrars have to conduct the central committee elections with public tax-dollars and resources.
In response, a growing number of county registrars in California, including the registrar in Napa County, have felt an obligation to request reimbursement from the parties for conducting central committee elections on the public dime.
However, all of these counties have now backed off from moving forward with the proposal — and quite abruptly, too.
The Fresno Bee reported Tuesday that Charles Bell and Thomas Willis, lawyers for California’s Republican Party and Democratic Party, respectively, “sent Napa County a letter threatening legal action if it tried to charge the political parties for the central committee elections.”
The letter states:
“Should Napa County cross the Rubicon, in spite of the substantial legal reasons it cannot do so without the Constitution’s and the Legislature’s authorization, it is likely to face costly litigation by the state’s political parties seeking to protect their county central committees’ right of access to the June 2016 ballot.”
Many party leaders believe that counties should be required to foot the bill for their private activities, even though many county voters cannot participate in these elections, and candidates running do not even have to take an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, state constitution, or county law.
In fact, the political parties have so much control over the process that even when a member is elected through the process administered by the county registrars, the party can remove a central committee member under its own internal party rules.
In short, the court ruled in Wilson that central committees don’t have to follow the California Elections Code if they don’t want to. Neither the state, nor the county, has jurisdiction over these central committees in how they conduct their elections, but they still have to pay for and administer them, in the manner the parties choose, without reimbursement from the parties.
The issue continues to raise a very simple, fundamental question: should publicly funded elections serve the public, or the private interests of political parties?