SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — With the California primaries long over, a federal judge tossed a suit brought by Bernie Sanders supporters accusing election officials of violating their voting rights in the run-up to the June election.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup dismissed the case as moot on Thursday, telling plaintiffs’ counsel William Simpich that “there is plenty of time to take an appeal.”
The lawsuit was filed less than three weeks before the June 7 primary by a group of Oakland-based Bernie Sanders supporters calling themselves the Voting Rights Defense Project. The American Independence Party and two San Francisco voters joined in the lawsuit.
In their complaint against California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and San Francisco and Alameda County registrars John Arntz and Tom Depuis, the plaintiffs claimed that election officials failed to inform voters who registered without declaring a party preference of their right to request a crossover ballot that allows them to vote in the Democratic, American Independent and Libertarian primaries.
They also claimed that voters who express a party preference can change that preference, and that not allowing them to do so violates the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.
The plaintiffs asked Alsup in the complaint to extend California’s voter registration deadline until Election Day, so voters could switch parties and to allow unaffiliated voters to recast their ballots.
Simpich further asked at an injunction hearing that a list of voter rights be disseminated online, emphasizing that nonpartisan voters who want to vote for Bernie Sanders can request a new ballot from a poll worker.
But with just six days remaining before the primary, Alsup refused to step in.
In a bid to keep their lawsuit alive, the plaintiffs said in a late June opposition that they had shifted focus to the 2020 primary in their “battle for the no-party-preference voters.” If granted leave to amend their complaint, they said, they would ask that poll workers be trained to ask nonpartisan voters whether they want to vote for a presidential candidate in one of the crossover parties.
The plaintiffs say that shortly after they filed their complaint, they learned about “a raft of abuses” involving Alameda County poll workers. Namely, although training videos instruct poll workers to tell nonpartisan voters that they can request a presidential party ballot, some trainers in Alameda County tell poll workers not to provide that information unless a voter requests such a ballot.
Simpich told Alsup at oral argument on Thursday that unless reforms are undertaken now, similar problems involving voter education will crop up in the months leading up to the 2020 primary.
“We’re going to have the same situation where proper notice is not going to be given to no-party-preference voters,” he said. “There is no indication that is going to change.”
Arguing on behalf of Padilla, Deputy Attorney General Sharon O’Grady called Simpich’s assertions “purely speculation.”
“How do you even try a case based on an election four years out?” O’Grady said.
Simpich had an answer: “It was a crisis situation and now they’re saying let’s have another crisis situation. That’s what we want to avoid.”
In separate dismissal motions, Padilla and Arntz argued that the plaintiffs had failed to show violations of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, calling their claims “effectively constitutional attacks on the Elections Code.”
Padilla and Arntz said that although the plaintiffs claimed that election officials had imposed “severe burdens” on their ability to vote, Alsup had previously ruled that “here, the burden on no-party-preference voters is slight, if it exists at all.”
In his denial of relief, Alsup added: “Voters must read the materials provided to them to understand their rights; only some counties will spoon-feed the information. The government’s interest in arranging for an orderly and fair primary, avoiding confusion and providing too much information, and ensuring that voters can receive their ballots in a timely manner all plainly justify defendants’ conduct.”
Padilla further called the Voting Rights Act “wholly irrelevant to the petitioners’ claims,” pointing out that the court had found that election officials hadn’t denied the plaintiffs the right to register to vote.
The plaintiffs disagreed.
“Certain plaintiffs — or the individuals they represent — are in imminent danger of being denied the right to vote in the presidential primary election because of the errors and omissions contained in the mandatory notices containing crucial information necessary in order to obtain the ballot,” the plaintiffs said in their opposition.
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