California’s new law requiring candidates for presidential primaries to disclose their tax returns in order to appear on ballot does not go far enough. This should be required for the general election as well.
On July 30, Gov. Gavin Newsom took the right step by signing Senate Bill 27, which says that a candidate for president can be listed on the ballot only if he or she submits tax returns to the California Secretary of State. This is a vital and constitutional step towards providing California voters with information that could be critically important in evaluating presidential candidates.
The Supreme Court has been clear that states have great latitude in setting conditions for a candidate being listed on a ballot so long as they do not discriminate based on wealth (such as by having large financial requirements) or based on ideology. In order to get on the primary ballot, a candidate for president of the United States must meet many complex, state-specific filing requirements and deadlines.
The same is true for the general election. For example, in order for an independent candidate to get on the ballot for president in the general election, he or she must get the signatures of one percent of the total number of registered voters in the state at the time of the close of registration prior to the preceding general election. In 2016, this required 178,039 signatures.
Obviously, SB 27 was motivated by Donald Trump’s adamant refusal to disclose his tax returns. But the law does not apply just to him: It applies to every presidential candidate who wants to be listed on the ballot in 2020, and all subsequent primary elections where he no longer can be a candidate. Trump’s behavior showed the need for this law, but that in no way lessens its importance or its constitutionality.
Until Trump chose to keep these secret, virtually every presidential candidate since the 1970s had voluntarily made these public. It is inexplicable why Trump has refused to do so unless he has something major to hide. His oft-stated rationale, that he is being audited, is nonsense. Nothing in the law prohibits a person being audited from disclosing his or her tax returns.
Trump also has said that his election proves that no one cares about his tax returns. That, too, is nonsense. Many do care, including some who voted for him and many who voted against him. But that is not the test. The question is whether the content of tax returns can provide important information to voters.
The California State Legislature and Gov. Newsom were correct in concluding that tax returns can provide crucial information that cannot be gained in any other way. Knowing who the candidate owes money to, or where the candidate has investments, can be key in understanding possible conflicts of interest. Information about a candidate’s wealth can tell a lot about his or her success, or failure, in business. Many voters are sure to be interested in knowing whether the candidate has paid his or her fair share of taxes. Those serving in public office in California, both elected and appointed, already have to make very detailed disclosures of their financial interests.
Lawsuits have already been filed challenging SB 27. More are sure to follow. They rely primarily on a 1995 Supreme Court case, United States Term Limit v. Thornton, which declared unconstitutional an Arkansas law that prevented a candidate from being listed on the ballot if he or she had already served three terms in the United States House of Representatives or two terms in the United States Senate. But that case is clearly distinguishable from SB 27 because it absolutely barred candidates appearing on the ballot if they had served more than the specified amount of time in Congress.
It was the state’s effort to create term limits for members of Congress. The Supreme Court explained that there are no such term limits in the Constitution and a state cannot impose them.
By contrast, SB 27 creates no absolute bar to anyone being on the ballot. It imposes a requirement that is simple and easy to meet, and what the vast majority of candidates to anyway: disclose tax returns.
SB 27 is thus an important step towards making sure that California voters have important information in evaluating presidential candidates. The next step is that this should be expanded to include the November presidential election and elections for other offices as well.