As Bernie Sanders supporters fear their candidate will miss out on crucial votes from independent and crossover voters in California’s June primary, civil rights lawyers filed suit Friday seeking more time for those voters to request a Democratic presidential ballot.
The lawyers sued in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on behalf of an organization trying to boost turnout for Sanders in his bid against Hillary Clinton. Additional plaintiffs include two individual voters and the American Independent Party, a conservative organization on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Sanders.
In the suit against Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Alameda County and San Francisco election officials, the plaintiffs contend that nonpartisan voters have received inconsistent and confusing instructions on how to vote in the June 7 presidential primary. They say thousands of voters will be disenfranchised.
The issue pertains to no-party-preference voters who participate by mail and began receiving their June primary ballots earlier this month. California has a semi-open presidential primary system in which the Democratic, American Independent and Libertarian parties are allowing nonpartisan voters to participate in their presidential nominating contests this year.
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To do so, those voters must request a presidential ballot. If they vote by mail, elections officials must receive the requests by May 31. Those voters also can vote at their polling place or county election office up until June 7. Once they mail a ballot without presidential candidates, they can no longer vote in the presidential contests.
“It’s inconsistent,” said William Simpich, one of the attorneys who filed the suit. “Sometimes the information is there, sometimes it’s not. And sometimes the instructions are bad.”
Some counties in California didn’t tell voters that they had the option to participate in presidential primaries, he said. In other cases, counties didn’t tell voters they could cast a ballot in person.
Besides seeking an extension in deadlines, plaintiffs are asking that nonpartisan voters be allowed to write-in a presidential candidate. They also want the state to give voters who mistakenly filed non-presidential ballots the chance to re-vote. And they are asking the court to require the state and counties to increase outreach efforts.
Shyla Nelson, spokeswoman for a coalition of lawyers and researchers assisting in the lawsuit called Electoral Justice, said plaintiffs have an additional concern that partisan voters have not received adequate instructions on how to re-register so they can participate in the presidential primary of their choice. The deadline to re-register for a different party or no party preference is Monday.
“There are a lot of Republicans in California who would be interested in voting for Bernie Sanders and may not know they have to take that step to re-register,” Nelson said.
Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis could not be reached Saturday by phone and did not respond to an email request for comment. Sam Mahood, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, would not comment on the lawsuit. But he said his office has and will continue to provide educational materials on how voters, including no-party-preference registrants, can vote in the June presidential primary.
More than 4.1 million voters in California have registered without a party preference, rising to 23.8 percent of the electorate as of April. Sanders led Clinton by 10 percentage points among independent California voters but trailed Clinton 47 percent to 41 percent overall, according to a Field Poll released in early April.
“Independents trend strongly toward Bernie,” said Simpich, who supports Sanders. “That’s why he lost New York, the independents couldn’t vote.”
So far, less than 15 percent of California nonpartisan, vote-by-mail voters have requested a presidential primary ballot, according to data compiled through May 16 from county registrars by Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc.
Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, agrees the California presidential primary process is too confusing. She said the county-by-county differences exist in part because Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers do not want to require a uniform set of instructions, fearing that the state would have to pay for those election materials. Complicating matters, she said, is that California has a top-two primary for other contests in which voters can select any candidate regardless of party.
She said counties also differ on how they handle requests for mail presidential ballots. She said some encourage voters to call in their requests, some require a written statement and some suggest filing the request in person.
Beyond that, Alexander and Simpich said poll workers are given different instructions in each county on how to handle nonpartisan voters. Some counties tell their workers to avoid offering a presidential ballot for fear that doing so would inappropriately influence the election. Other counties tell workers to explain all of the options available.
“What we’ve seen since the last presidential election is that the percentage of independent voters continues to grow, and the percentage of voters who vote by mail also increase each election,” Alexander said. “That combination is a real challenge for election officials and voters alike.”