Election Law Withstands Constitutional Attack

California’s implementation law for the Top-Two Primary initiative survived a constitutional challenge in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday.

Three minority-party candidates challenged to constitutionality of portions of the state law implementing the voter initiative that fundamentally changed the state election system by eliminating party primaries and general elections with party-nominated candidates.

They argued it violated the rights of minority candidates by forcing them to state on the ballot they had “no party preference,” and disenfranchised voters who wanted to cast write-in ballots.

The initiative, Proposition 14, substituted a nonpartisan primary and two-candidate runoff.

Prior to passage of Prop. 14, voters selected a candidate in partisan primary elections in June and the winner became the party nominee in the November general election.  Independent candidates did not participate.  They could participate in the general election by voter petition.

Prop. 14 changed the state Constitution to create open primary elections that allow the top-two vote getters to a run-off in November, no matter what their party affiliation.

Lawmakers implemented the new system with Senate Bill 6.  The bill calls for primary candidates to list their party affiliation, but that was interpreted to mean “qualified party” and requirements were imposed to be recognized as a qualified party.

The new law also bars casting write-in votes for the general election, when just the Top-Two runoff occurs.

The Secretary of State interpreted this as a ban on write-in candidates.

The trial court dismissed the case and the 9th Circuit upheld the decision.

One of the candidates who sued was Michael Chamness.  “We hold that Chamness has failed to establish that SB6 severely burdened his rights, and uphold the constitutionality of the statute as reasonably related to furthering the state’s important interest in efficiently regulating elections,” said Judge James Carr, a visiting judge from the Northern District of Ohio.

Joining the decision were Judges Marsha Berzon and Paul Watford.

Case:  Chamness v. Bowen, No.11-56449