LOS ANGELES (CN) - The ACLU on Thursday challenged the constitutionality of California voting regulations that forced a socialist politician to state on ballots that he is not affiliated with any party.
The ACLU Foundation of Southern California sued the state on behalf of Emidio "Mimi" Soltysik, California State Chair of the Socialist Party USA, and Jennifer McClellan, a member of the party's National Committee.
They seek a court order to allow candidates of "non-qualified" parties to state their party preference on ballots in voter-nominated elections.
Under the state Election Code, a "qualified" political party must meet at least one of three requirements: (a) one of its candidates received at least 2 percent of the vote in a statewide contest during the preceding gubernatorial primary; (b) at least 0.33 percent of the registered voters on the 154th day before the primary declared their intention to affiliate with that political party; or (c) at least 10 percent of the entire vote of the state at the preceding gubernatorial election signed a petition asking that their party of choice be granted qualified status.
Candidates of qualified political parties may state their affiliation on ballots but non-qualified candidates cannot.
"Party affiliation is the single largest factor in how the vast majority of voters vote," ACLU attorney Brendan Hamme said in a statement. "Yet candidates who associate with non-qualified parties are denied the ability to convey this vital information to voters on the ballot."
The Proposition 14 ballot measure in 2010 shifted how primaries are run in California by preventing political parties excluding members of other parties from voting in primary elections. After the law passed, Californians were allowed to vote for candidates regardless of party affiliation.
Candidates of parties not recognized under the California Elections Code must align themselves with a major party or state that they have no political preference, according to the federal lawsuit.
"The State of California has no legitimate interest in providing a forum for speech only to candidates whose viewpoints the state has approved, while not only preventing candidates with disfavored viewpoints from expressing themselves, but also actively forcing them to denounce or deny their deeply held political ideologies," the complaint states.
Hamme said the Election Code violates his clients' First Amendment and Equal Protection rights because Soltysik had to identify as having no party preference on the ballot when he ran for the Assembly last year.
"Mimi and Jenn are forced to identify as having no party preference despite their clear preference for the Socialist Party USA and active leadership roles within it. The Election Code actually forces them to lie to voters on the ballot - violating their fundamental rights, confusing voters and undermining our democracy in the process," Hamme said in an interview.
Hamme said lead defendant Secretary of State Alex Padilla "rebuffed" their efforts to resolve the issue out of court because a previous challenge to Prop. 14, Field v. Bowen, had been rejected by a state judge.
Hamme said California has justified the regulation by citing a compelling government interest and voter confusion, an argument the attorney rejects.
"Nobody could really be confused by the presence of the Socialist Party USA on the ballot," Hamme said. "It's a well-recognized party with a history, at least for its predecessor, going back almost 100 years.
"Washington state has a ballot system similar to California's and you can name any political party. For example, there's the Salmon Yoga party on Washington state's ballot and nobody has been confused by the presence of the Salmon Yoga party. So, I don't see how that argument holds water."
Soltysik said the state itself confused voters by making him explain to people why the ballot listed him as having no party.
"That's not the truth. I do have a party preference that represents my beliefs," Soltysik said.
"What I found was when we actually canvassed this was quite confusing to the voters. They wanted to know, 'Why couldn't you say on the ballot what your party preference is?'"
When Soltysik file papers for candidacy, officials told him he would have to run as a candidate for a qualified party or state that he had no political preference.
"For us as socialists, so much of our focus is on the local level," Soltysik said. "If candidates locally are unable to express their beliefs and their party affiliation ... in a way, it almost feels to me like censorship. I can't say who I am. So I think as a free speech issue this is critical."
Attorneys Kevin Minnick, Zachary Faigen and Maximillian Hirsch have also taken on the case pro bono.
The Secretary of State did not immediately comment on Thursday.
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