Longtime Laguna Beach resident Paul Merritt knows his candidacy for the U.S. Senate is a long shot, but he’s incensed that in his view the California Secretary of State has made the odds longer.
Merritt, who ran unsuccessfully for Laguna Beach City Council in 2014, is one of 34 candidates who filed to run to replace retiring Barbara Boxer.
In California, with the exception of the presidential race, all candidates run in the same primary and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election.
In the U.S. Senate race, the ballot on June 7 will include seven Democrats, 12 Republicans, and 15 third-party candidates, including Merritt.
And there’s the rub. Merritt wanted to signal to voters he is unaffiliated with either of the major parties and declared himself “independent” in his candidacy statement, included in a statewide voter guide of certified candidates.
Without his consent or knowledge, and in apparent violation of state election code, representatives of State Secretary Alex Padilla changed Merritt’s self-description and that of two other “independent” candidates in the race to “No Party Preference.”
“No party preference implies wishy washy,” said Merritt. Last month, he inadvertently learned of the change through the county Registrar of Voters, who he asked to correct the designation. “The Secretary of State deceived voters,” Merritt said.
Merritt scrambled to seek a temporary restraining order in federal court in Santa Ana to halt the distribution of voter guides, which are due to be mailed April 29. Some overseas voters have already received ballots.
Sam Mahood, a spokesman for Padilla, citing the pending litigation, declined to comment about the change of ballot descriptions.
Though Merritt asked for a hearing Monday, April 25, he isn’t hopeful as his initial request was denied April 8 by Judge David Carter. Besides procedural problems with the request, the judge cited a 2013 case alleging a free-speech violation over the prohibition of the description “Independent” on a ballot and the forced substitution of “No Party Preference.” The Ninth Circuit refused to intervene.
The battle over candidate descriptions stems in part from the 2010 voter-approved initiative that changed the purpose of the California primary to selecting top vote getters rather than party leaders, said Chad Peace, president of the Independent Voter Network in San Diego, which advocates for non-partisan changes to the elections process.
The conflict also reflects the surge since in registration among voters who shun party alliances, said Peace. “Election officials are more apt to resolve in whatever way helps their parties; the brand of not being associated with them is becoming more powerful.”
And in another wrinkle, the American Independent Party has become the state’s third largest party, but most of its members have registered in error believing they have declared themselves “independent,” a poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times shows.
“I based my campaign on independent voters,” Merritt said. “It’s a sabotage.”
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