Blame This One on Secretary of State Weber

Author: Steve Peace
Created: 26 February, 2024
4 min read

Eight years ago, there was a competition still in play between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton when the California primary rolled around. But, even though the Democratic Party allowed independent votes to be counted toward the selection of convention delegates, then Secretary of State Alex Padilla refused to eliminate the arcane and undemocratic barriers to voting left over from partisan primary rules more than half a century old.

ALSO READ: California Court Says It's Ok to Suppress Independent Voter Rights

This election is different. Republicans Nikki Haley and Donald Trump will both still be competing for delegates but -- unlike in South Carolina and New Hampshire -- only ballots cast by “registered” Republicans will count toward the selection of delegates to the Republican Convention.

The two major political parties have every right to make their own decisions about whose votes they count toward their private nomination process. But their private corporate decisions have nothing to do with how California operates our publicly funded primary elections.

The secretary of state should be administering California’s voter-created nonpartisan primary for the benefit of the voters and public transparency, not private corporations run by national political party operatives.

Legally, Californians are not even “registered” by party affiliation. Look closely at your voter registration form. We may choose to express a “preference” for a particular party, or we may choose “no party preference” (NPP). Nowhere do we register as Republicans, or Democrats, or Greens, or Libertarians.

This truly nonpartisan registration is not a mere anomaly. It is a critical distinction that underpins the legality of our nonpartisan top-two system that governs all races except the race for president.

In fairness, there is a difference. Primary elections for president are about selecting delegates to private conventions where the political parties formally select their nominees. The truth is the parties are under no obligation to use our public primaries. Instead, they can hold caucuses or even privately finance their own elections.

But when they do use public, taxpayer-financed elections they have no right to determine who gets to vote for president. That decision is in the hands of the secretary of state. The parties do have the right to determine which votes they include in their delegate selection process.

This is not a distinction without a difference. Open public referendums with or without delegate selection consequences are important -- particularly in a state as large as California. Yet, our secretary of state has chosen to exclude a third of Californians from the right to vote based solely on their desire not to publicly share their political party preference.

The secretary of state is charged with the obligation to establish the rules by which nonpartisan open primary elections are administered. Instead of meeting this obligation, the secretary of state -- first under Mr. Padilla and now under Dr. Weber -- has disenfranchised millions of California voters by ignoring the obligation to voters in favor of catering to the private interests of both national political parties.

Worse, they promote a set of complicated rules that accomplish nothing other than to cost more taxpayer money and lower voter participation.

Eight years ago, even the presidential campaign operations were confused by the secretary of state’s insistence that NPP voters request a second ballot in order to participate in a Democratic presidential primary in which the Democrats agreed to count NPP votes toward delegate selection.

There are simple, fair, and cheaper alternatives that preserve the political parties' right to private association and still let everyone vote. Alex Padilla and Shirley Weber are both good people. I know and respect both of them. But sometimes folks in politics lose track of the forest for having been matriculating the trees.

It is particularly ironic that younger voters and minority voters are disproportionately represented among the NPP voters who have been systematically excluded from equal access to the ballot box.

The courts will eventually fix this. But, as with all Civil Rights cases, it will take years and multiple cases for that legal battle to be won. In the meantime, creating barriers to vote is simply wrong and unethical even when cleverly administered around the law.

Dr. Weber needs to step away from the trees. Ignore the national political partisan power brokers, the lawyers still stuck in late 19th and 20th Century political science, and simply listen to her better angels. Is the public interest best served by continuing to block people from the right to vote? Or, is it way past time to embrace the simple notion that democracy works best when the most people vote?

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