California Superior Court Judge Upheld Key Parts of State Senate Bill 6, Maintaining Voter Disenfranchisement

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California Superior Court Judge Upheld Key Parts of State Senate Bill 6, Maintaining Voter Disenfranchisement

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – On the heels of Lisa Murkowski’s declared write-in candidacy for re-election to U.S. Senate, a California judge interpreted state law to mean that write-in space should be removed from the ballot.

Superior Court Judge Charlotte Woolard rejected a challenge to state Senate Bill 6, the “enabling legislation” for Proposition 14, the Top Two Primary, Tuesday, September 14, 2010. In Field v. Bowen, Woolard refused to strike down two parts of SB6: the requirements that election officials discard write-in votes and that candidates can only list party affiliations officially recognized by the state.

Woolard interpreted the law to say that SB6 prohibits write-in voting. In actual practice, the law says write-in votes can be cast but will then be thrown away. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit held that this violated California law, which requires every vote to be counted. Woolard was unmoved by this argument, paving the way for the potentially unlimited disenfranchisement of voters.

A second challenge to the law held that candidates can only list their party affiliation if the state officially recognizes the party. Candidates affiliated with other parties would be compelled by law to deceive voters, either by choosing another party or being listed as having no party preference.

According to Richard Winger, election law expert, write-in candidates regularly win elections. U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, the longest-serving Senator in U.S. history, was elected to his first term by write-in votes. California’s own Congressman Ron Packard was elected by write-in votes in 1982. The list of state legislators alone runs into hundreds of names, including the recent elections of Pam Richardson of Massachusetts in 2006, Ellen Samuelson of Kansas in 1994, Mark Dailey of Rhode Island in 1990 and Jack Stump of Virginia in 1989.

Richard’s best example is Charlotte Burks, a Democrat elected in November 1998 to the Tennessee State Senate by write-in votes. “Her husband, the incumbent, had been murdered a few weeks before the election by the only other person on the ballot, the Republican nominee,” Winger said. “The law said the deceased man’s name should be removed from the ballot, but there was no authority to remove the alleged murder because he hadn’t been convicted yet. [He was later convicted.] Under California’s Top Two system, voters would have had no choice except to elect the murderer.”

A major flaw of Top Two systems is that voters are effectively locked in to bad choices. Another example is Louisiana in 1991. For Governor, voters were forced to choose between notoriously corrupt politician Edwin Edwards, who was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison for racketeering, and Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke. Because write-in votes were forbidden, voters had no other options. One prominent bumper sticker at the time read, “Vote For The Crook. It’s Important.”

“Proponents of Top Two claim it will reduce the prevalence of ‘extremists’ on the ballot,” said Christina Tobin, Free & Equal Elections Foundation founder and chair. “What they really intend is something else entirely: a system that increases the cost of running for office, favoring big-money corporate shills, while blocking grassroots candidates from participating in our political discourse after the June primary, just when most voters are starting to pay attention.”

Just look what’s happening in Texas.


Free & Equal is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, public-policy advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the rights of the politically marginalized and disenfranchised, particularly those of third party and Independent candidates.