As reported in Wednesday’s Tribune, the Superior Court recently issued a ruling in the case of Barta vs. Bowen that political party central committee members may not be required to take a loyalty oath as a condition of candidacy or position.
The Clerk-Recorder’s office did not oppose this action on the basis that such issues should be resolved through the legislature or the courts, as our office has no discretion to refuse to follow California Elections Code provisions. By standing aside during this legal process, the Clerk Recorder sought to minimize the expense of opposing this action and to reduce any exposure to a potential award of private attorney general fees in the matter.
This lawsuit and the recent ruling do bring to light other outdated processes regarding the election of party committee members. County Central Committees are nonpublic offices, composed of members of political parties involved in party fundraising, candidate endorsement and other party activities.
However, the Elections Code requires that the nomination filings and election for these offices be conducted by the county registrar of voters and the full cost of this is borne by the taxpayers of each county. Every other jurisdiction for which the county conducts an election, including cities, schools and special districts, pays for its own pro rata share of the election, yet the political parties have no such requirement. It is estimated that the costs associated with these internal political party elections can exceed $7.5 million statewide for each election. In the 2010 primary election, the pro rata share of the three central committee contests that were on the ballot in San Luis Obispo County was $58,000, comprising more than 12 percent of the total budget for that election.
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In a typical primary, the central committee candidates make up between 65 percent and 80 percent of all candidates filing nomination papers. Each candidate filing requires signatures to be verified, occupational designations to be reviewed by elections staff and, if there are a sufficient number of candidates, the inclusion of the contests on the ballot. If these contests are placed on the ballot, that ballot type is available only to members of the political party, and because some parties allow nonpartisan voters to vote in that party’s presidential contest, central committee contests can result in additional ballot types as well. This not only increases the cost to the county for ballot printing , but also complicates the process of issuing ballots on Election Day.
While counties have been conducting these elections at taxpayer expense for decades, this era of ever-decreasing budgets and reduction of services has caused the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials to seek a sponsor to introduce legislation to allow the political parties to select their members by caucus or internal elections.
Recent legislation did eliminate the filing of oaths and specific campaign finance reports with the elections official and extended the term of office from two to four years, saving the cost of processing central committee member candidates in every primary election.
While these changes, and the elimination of administration of the oath under the recent ruling, are steps in the right direction, the only equitable solution is to give the political parties responsibility for the conduct of their own internal elections and eliminate entirely the cost to the taxpayers.
Julie Rodewald is the county clerk-recorder.