Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

County Registrars Tell Political Parties to Pay for Their Own Elections

Created: 23 September, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
4 min read

NAPA VALLEY, CALIF. - The Napa County Board of Supervisors will vote on an upcoming proposal to decide whether or not political party central committees will have to reimburse county election offices for conducting their elections.

The vote was tentatively scheduled for September 22, and now has been postponed pending county counsel’s direction.

The Registrar of Voters in Napa County is requesting that the Board of Supervisors vote to allow election officials to be reimbursed by political party central committees if they have to conduct their private elections.

The California Constitution requires that election offices must conduct partisan elections for party central committee members if the political party chooses to use the public ballot during the presidential primary election.

Republican and Democratic central committees can conduct their own elections for committee seats at any time by caucus, convention, other committee-specified means, or they can choose to place the contest on the June presidential primary ballot every four years.

But the party elections serve a private purpose. In fact, the California Democratic Party relied on the private nature of their primary elections in a landmark case they took before the United States Supreme Court -- a case they won. (see, California Democratic Party v. Jones 2000).

The Napa County Registrar of Voters also bases their request for reimbursement on the court's finding in Wilson v. San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee (2009). The court reasoned that county central committees are part of a political party, which are private organizations and not public agencies.

So if party primaries are ‘private’ activities, the county registrars are now asking a simple question: Why are the taxpayers funding them? Would it be appropriate for a county clerk to fund the elections of any other private corporation?

Currently, political parties do not reimburse the state for any expenses the county incurs while conducting the election.

In Wilson, the question before the court was: could the Democratic Central Committee in San Luis Obispo (SLO) adopt laws that conflict with the California Elections Code that governs political party affairs in the state?

The court ruled in favor of the SLO Democratic Party Central Committee, arguing that it did have the right to adopt specific bylaws that might conflict with the California Elections Code because political parties are private organizations. The court reasoned that parts of the California Elections Code burdened "the First Amendment rights of political parties and their members without serving a compelling state interest."

The finding in Wilson allows central committees the ability to follow their own election rules set forth by the party instead of the California Elections Code. If the state's election code interferes with political party rules, the party's rules take precedence.

So, not only do political parties not have to reimburse the state for conducting their elections, but central committees are also required to follow party rules when they come in conflict with the California Constitution.

Some people, like the Registrar of Voters in Napa County, are asking why.

There is one other underlying issue in this debate - those elected to central committee offices do not have to take an oath of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution or the California Constitution because political parties are private associations.

In Barta v. Bowen (2011), John Barta filed a petition against the California secretary of state, arguing that it is unconstitutional for (1) a person filing a declaration of candidacy in an election for a political party central committee seat to take a loyalty oath; and (2) that person, if elected, to take a loyalty oath before they take their seat.

The loyalty oath (Article XX, Section 3) states that members in public offices must take an oath upon entering office to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California.

These requirements, according to Barta, violate the First Amendment associational rights and freedom of speech of political parties and their members when applied to candidacy for membership in political party county central committees because it cannot be shown that such oaths are necessary to ensure an orderly and fair election process.

In that case, the court found it unconstitutional to require the winner of a party central committee election to take an oath to uphold the California Constitution.

Therefore, candidates of political party central committees do not have to swear allegiance to the U.S. Constitution or the California Constitution, nor do they have to reimburse the state for the cost of their elections.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors will decide if the Napa County Registrar of Voters can ask for reimbursement from political party central committees to conduct their elections.

This all goes to a more fundamental question: should public elections serve voters, or political parties?

Photo Credit: RealClear