There are three ways legislators can attempt to prevent a law from taking effect – and they vary in terms of transparency to the public. The first, most obvious way is that they can vote against it, and hope to persuade enough colleagues on board to vote with them. But once passed into law, a legislator can attempt to defund the measure. This can be done in a public fashion, as we are witnessing in the current Obamacare debates in Washington.
But it is the third way that should concern us all as Californians: the use of budget trailer bills that quietly have tucked within them the poison pills intended to kill particular programs. What is so insidious about this last strategy as that these bills rarely carry titles that would indicate their intended targets, and are often so complex that a few lines of text defunding a mandated program squirreled into 400-500 page trailers can easily pass the notice of even the most exacting observer, at least until it’s too late.
Well, if it happened once, it would be an event, and two times a trend. But do three instances of this practice constitute a strategy for the Legislative Democrats and Governor Brown in using budget trailers to make our elections less secure and our government less transparent?
The recent news that the 500+ page budget bill (now law) AB 110 defunds ballot security in several key areas – including the mandated second stage review of provisional ballots, and updating county absentee voter lists – shines light on yet another shadowy assault on the integrity of California’s democracy. In an apparently unreported July 31st memo from the Secretary of State’s office titled “Elections Procedures: 2013-14 State Budget Mandate Suspensions,” the office notes, “AB 110 suspends [underline in original text] the requirement that signatures on provisional ballot envelopes be compared against voter affidavits to determine ballot eligibility, thereby removing a critical method to prevent voter fraud.”
Research in ballot security in state after state shows that the two main sources of voter fraud occur in the submission of absentee and provisional ballots. California’s Election Code dictates that certifying provisional ballots be a two-stage process: first, the county registrar must be sure the name on the ballot matches a voter registration on the county list, and second, the signature on the provisional must match that on the county list. It is this second crucial step – what the Secretary of State herself calls “a critical method to prevent voter fraud” – that Democrats in the Legislature (on a party-line vote in both the Assembly and Senate) have suspended with AB 110, which Governor Brown signed into law.
With the signing of AB 110, the use of budget bills by the Governor and Democrats in the Legislature now appears to be a strategy to block transparency and put the legitimacy of our elections system at risk.
Just a few months ago, Governor Brown and Democrats in the Legislature were called to the carpet for attempting to defund California’s Public Records Act through another budget trailer bill, SB 71. As the non-partisan government watchdog Sunlight Foundation argued at the time, “the state’s budget cannot be balanced by rolling back transparency measures that are essential to California’s identity and functional operations.” And as I pointed out in June, “Allowing cities out of their Public Records Act obligations for the sake of saving money in Sacramento, mostly affects fiscally challenged municipalities where records requests can be dismissed as too expensive.”
Under considerable pressure, the Governor and the Legislature relented, and in the last week of session, the Legislature decided to put the measure on the June primary ballot, forcing local governments to pick up the tab for Sacramento’s mandate.
But AB 110 shows that the Governor and the Legislative Democrats are back at it again.
Remember that these two events follow on the ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal earlier this year, which found the Secretary of State had unconstitutionally placed Brown’s tax initiative at the top of the ballot (as Prop 30) based on the passage of an empty “spot bill” (AB 1499) as part a larger measure. As the court noted in January, AB 1499, “was nothing but a number, a placeholder, an empty vessel at the time the budget bill was passed.” As I wrote about these insider machinations back then, “with the Prop 30 tax increases now in place, three judges have stepped in where the SOS feared to tread.”
The apparent strategy of using secretive budget measures to either circumvent standard democratic procedures or defund the Legislature’s own mandates in ballot security and government transparency should anger all Californians. The fact that a Democratic super-majority in the Legislature, a Democratic governor have undertaken these efforts is a sign of extreme overreach. The fact that a Democratic secretary of state has made no public defense of fully funding ballot security following on her own memo is yet another sign of laziness at best and insider partisanship at worst.
It should be noted that one of the two state senators running to be California’s chief elections officer (Alex Padilla) voted to pass all three of the above measures, and the other (Leland Yee) voted for both AB 110 and AB 1499.
A message then to Governor Brown and Democrats in the Legislature: using opaque budget trailers to impede civic engagement is disturbingly ironic, and a sign of overreach. The reason many Californians don’t trust their government is because of actions just like these. I call on Governor Brown and the Legislature to fully fund mandated transparency and ballot security measures, and to stop the practice of using secretive and complex budget trailer bills to block civic engagement. And I call on the Secretary of State to defend her own memo on AB 110.
To sign my e-petition demanding the Governor and the Legislature fund their own mandates on ballot security and transparency go to votesos.com.
Pete Peterson is Executive Director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy, and is a candidate for California Secretary of State.