Judge Rejects Sanders Supporters' Voting Rights Lawsuit as Baseless

by | June 2, 2016

By Bob Egelko

A lawsuit by supporters of Bernie Sanders seeking more time and information from election officials for independent voters -- the bloc crucial to the Vermont senator's presidential hopes in next week's California primary -- failed Wednesday to impress a federal judge, who called the suit tardy, misdirected and meritless.

Filed May 20, the suit accused state and local officials of providing misleading or incomplete instructions in their mailings and websites about the rights of nonaligned voters to cast a presidential ballot for a Democrat, American Independent or Libertarian candidate next Tuesday. To do so, a voter must request such a ballot by mail -- the deadline was Tuesday -- or at the polls.

"No-party-preference voters' voting power is being diluted," attorney William Simpich argued during a court hearing in San Francisco, noting that nonaligned voters make up 23 percent of the California electorate. Information provided to voters varies between counties, he said, and "this is a case that cries out for uniformity."

But U.S. District Judge William Alsup said the suit was filed much too late, just 2 1/2  weeks before the election, and mostly alleged violations of state laws over which he has no jurisdiction. And he said the federal claims -- that election officials are discriminating against independent voters, in violation of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act -- were unfounded.

"The citizens of California are smart enough to know what their rights are," Alsup said in denying Simpich's request for a court order requiring new statewide voter information. He said the ballot pamphlet and other election materials tell independent voters they have a right to request a presidential ballot from one of three parties, and "if their ballot doesn't say Sanders, they can ask."

Sardonically, the judge told Simpich he could seek an emergency order from a federal appeals court, the U.S. Supreme Court or the International Court of Justice. Simpich said afterward that the plaintiffs hadn't decided whether to file an appeal in federal court or refile their claims in state court.

The suit was filed against the state and San Francisco and Alameda counties by a group of Sanders supporters called the Voting Rights Defense Project, along with the American Independent Party and two individual voters. They argued that the absence of clear statewide instructions in ballot materials left many independent voters in the dark about how to obtain partisan presidential ballots, leading some to write in a candidate's name, which won't be counted.

They asked for a variety of remedies, including extending the state's registration deadline from May 23 to election day, a step that election officials called unworkable and a formula for chaos. Simpich scaled down his requests at Wednesday's hearing, seeking only a brief statewide announcement, by email, radio and social media, on how to obtain a presidential ballot.

But the state already mails that information to voters, said Deputy Attorney General Sharon O'Grady, representing Secretary of State Alex Padilla. Padilla's office also provides the information on signs posted at polling places, said Alameda County's attorney, Senior Deputy County Counsel Raymond Lara.

"All poll workers are trained to actively inform (nonaligned) voters they can get crossover ballots" to vote for president, said San Francisco's lawyer, Deputy City Attorney Joshua White. "There's no evidence of any kind of burden on voting rights."

(c)2016 the San Francisco Chronicle