Jeff Jardine

Party politics preclude presidential primary participation for some, Gray says

Stanislaus County Clerk Recorder Lee Lundrigan in 2013.
Stanislaus County Clerk Recorder Lee Lundrigan in 2013. Modesto Bee file

Tuesday’s primary left some voters frustrated, and not only because The Associated Press reported the day before the election that Hillary Clinton had secured the delegates and superdelegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination.

They were frustrated because when they arrived at their polling places, only registered Republicans could vote for Republican candidates for president, meaning for or against Donald Trump. The so-called open primary – California’s game of political “Survivor” – pared the fields in other races down to the two top vote-getters for the November runoff. But it didn’t apply to presidential races, thanks to Proposition 14, passed by voters in 2010.

The respective parties can opt to determine their presidential candidates in house, meaning within their party. Voters from one party or those with no party affiliation could request ballots from any other party and vote for candidates from those parties. The same applies to by-mail votes. But unlike the Democrats, Republicans refused to allow crossover votes.

So instead of one ballot with all of the races, voter registrars in each of the state’s 58 counties all produced multiple ballots, and many more than they’d normally need. Merced County’s top election official, Barbara Levey, said she ordered 140 percent of the ballots she thought she’d need for the Democrats and Republicans, along with ballots for the Libertarian, Peace & Freedom, American Independent and Green parties. And in the weeks preceding the election, some voters changed parties to vote as they wanted, so she had to order additional ballots to meet the needs.

Levey hasn’t seen the bills from the printers yet. Her counterpart in Stanislaus County, Lee Lundrigan, said the same. The bills, both said, will be significant and the taxpayers will pay them. That bothers Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced.

“If the political parties want to write the rules, then they should have to pay for the primary elections themselves instead of asking taxpayers to foot the bill,” Gray said.

The current system, he said, shuns the fastest-growing voter group in the state and the nation, the nonpartisans. In Stanislaus County, the voting rolls are 39.7 percent Republican, 37.9 percent Democrat and 18 percent nonpartisan. Nonpartisans make up more than 19 percent each in San Joaquin, Merced and Tuolumne counties.

An Assembly resolution attempting to cure this taxpayer-funded mess died in committee a few months ago. On Thursday, Gray and a group calling itself the Independent Voter Project introduced ACA 13. The amendment, he said, would give all voters their say while cutting down on the paperwork and ballot printing costs.

“We’d do what we do in every other election,” Gray said. In essence, all voters would receive the same ballot listing all candidates in the primaries. Technology, he said, enables the registrars to produce ballots that would determine a voter’s party without identifying the specific voter. Thus, he said, ballots distributed to Republicans could be distinguished from the others when they are turned into the voter registrars’ offices. The party could use only those votes to determine their nominee for president. The other ballots would be totaled, but not impact the distribution of delegates.

Gray said his amendment preserves the Republicans’ ability to determine their nominee without the out-of-party voter influence while at the same time giving all voters a voice.

“We’re not saying you can’t have your own party’s presidential election,” Gray said. “We’re just asking why all of the taxpayers are paying for it? Why should you have to pay for an election you can’t vote in?” Gray said. “As it stands, you don’t get to vote (for a Republican unless registered as one). That’s just ridiculous.”

Would that appease the Republicans? Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who heads the county’s GOP committee, hadn’t heard of Gray’s bill until I called him Friday and described the provisions.

“On the surface, that would probably be all right, but I wouldn’t want to give it my blessing without seeing it first,” DeMartini said. “Adam’s a fair guy. The cost of the ballots is big. Anything that cuts the costs and improves the efficiency is worth a look.”

Except, Lundrigan said, it doesn’t work like that.

“The magic wand in Sacramento is different than the boots on the ground making elections work,” she said. “They didn’t ask us about this.”

If technology that could separate votes by party affiliation now exists, she said, she isn’t aware of it, and suggested that the chance for error would increase – not decrease – in terms of accuracy in getting the right ballots to the right voters. Also, to include all the races and candidates on a single ballot for a Tuesday primary likely would have required two sheets of paper, actually doubling printing costs, not reducing them, she said.

“It would cause more issues than it would fix,” she said.

Which suggests that simplifying the election process is never as simple as it might seem.