On February 13, the Ninth Circuit heard arguments in Chamness v Maldonado, 11-56303, over California’s law on partisan labels on the ballot in congressional elections and elections for partisan state office. California law puts party labels on the ballot if the candidate is registered in a qualified party, but all other candidates must have “no party preference” on the ballot. This is true for independent candidates, and also for candidates who are registered members of unqualified parties. The lower court had upheld this law.
The panel seemed unpersuaded that the U.S. Constitution requires states to permit all candidates to list their party of registration on the ballot, but they also seemed to feel that the mandatory label “no party preference” is not fair to candidates who hold themselves out as independent candidates. They also had some sympathy for members of unqualified parties who are not accurately described by that label. Judge Paul Watford suggested that requiring candidates to have “no party preference” is a form of forced speech, and such candidates should at least have the option to have no ballot label whatsoever. He also suggested that the label “Not affiliated with a qualified party” would be more accurate.
Judge Marsha Berzon was interested in the fact that California law recognizes “political bodies”. A “political body” is a group that has elected state officers, has filed the names of these officers with the state, and has notified the Secretary of State that it is trying to qualify. This point is important because it shows that unqualified parties in California do exist and do have a structure.
The attorney for the California Secretary of State said that it is easy to qualify a new party in California, a statement that is not true. Except for Americans Elect, no new party has qualified in California since 1995. California requires more registrations to get a newly-qualifying party on the ballot than any other state even requires signatures on a petition. Currently, California requires 103,008 registered members, or 1,030,080 valid signatures, whereas no other state requires more than 89,340 valid signatures. Furthermore, the deadline for qualifying a new party in California was held unconstitutional last year. No legislator so far has been willing to introduce a bill to replace the old law.
Here is a link to the audio for the hearing, which lasts about 45 minutes. Thanks to Mike Feinstein for the link.