Paying for the party

Dems, GOP use public dime for obscure internal committee elections

What’s in your wallet, or purse, for that matter? Your party’s central committee wants it.

What’s in your wallet, or purse, for that matter? Your party’s central committee wants it.

Illustration By jason crosby

They are probably the most arcane and misunderstood contests on the June ballot.

Every two years, during the spring primary election, the political parties ask voters to elect members of the county central committees.

If you’re registered as a Republican in Sacramento County, you’ll be asked to pick members of the county GOP central committee. Greens will vote for Green Party Central Committee members, and so on.

These committees are the heart of the local political machine. They decide which candidates the local party will endorse, help raise money and get out the vote for their favorites. And even though we tend to think of Democrat and Republican parties as being somehow permanent parts of the government, they aren’t.

“The central committees are private organizations that use the public-election system to elect their members at no cost to themselves,” explained Brad Buyse, campaign services manager for the Sacramento County elections department.

All of the parties elect their leaders during regularly scheduled primary elections. But central committees don’t carry their weight when it comes to the cost of holding elections.

For example, when the city of Sacramento holds an election for the mayor and city council, the city later gets a bill from Buyse’s elections department. Likewise, when a school district elects its board members, the district pays the cost of the election. But central committee candidates are not required to pay any filing fee, and the county can’t recoup any of its costs.

“It is as though your homeowners association was allowed to use the public-elections system to elect its members at no cost,” said Buyse. Chances are you know some of the people in your homeowners association, but that’s often not true of the local party hierarchy.

Sometimes the local parties get involved in very public fights, such as the local Democrats campaign against Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s strong-mayor initiative. But central committee candidates are usually party activists who the average voter knows very little about and usually never again hear from after they are elected.

“It’s something we need to work on. I don’t know if people really know what the central committees do,” said Anna Molander, chairwoman for the Sacramento County Democratic Party. “[‘Central committee’] sounds like something from behind the Iron Curtain or out of Logan’s Run,” said Molander.

Central committee candidates aren’t allowed ballot statements, so voters have little to go on. For example, on the June 2008 ballot, Democratic voters in California’s 5th Assembly District (covering north Natomas and stretching east to Orangevale and Folsom) were asked to pick six central committee members out of 17 candidates. It was just one of three Democratic central committee elections in the county that year. But little information was given for each candidate—just a name and an occupation, like “college student,” “airline pilot” or “incumbent.”

To make the process more confusing, the different political parties each have different rules for selecting their members. For example, Democrats elect their committee members by state Assembly district, but Republicans go by county supervisor district. The Peace and Freedom Party follows the Republican model, but the Greens just elect their members in one big countywide scrum.

In June 2008, there were 112 central committee candidates (including four political parties) on the ballot in Sacramento County. Those elections cost the county $446,318 at a time when local governments are desperate to cut costs. Buyse estimates the cost for central committee elections in June 2010 will run about $300,000.

Aside from the financial cost, Buyse said the central committee elections are a burden on election agencies which are losing staff due to budget cuts. And they’ve contributed to ever-longer ballots, which cost more to mail and process, and can be daunting to voters. “Over the years, the central committee elections have gotten larger and larger, with every election. That creates a very long ballot, which creates voter fatigue,” said Buyse.

In Sonoma County, the county registrar of voters, Janice Atkinson, said party business has come to dominate the ballot. “We have more candidates in the central committee contests than in all other contests combined,” Atkinson explained.

Of course, there are plenty of other obscure, down-ballot contests that leave voters scratching their heads. How does anyone pick the best candidate for the local irrigation district? But Atkinson said those are fundamentally different kinds of races.

“The difference between the parties and your local irrigation district, or the school district or parks district is that those are public boards. They are put in place by the public and could be dissolved by the public. The public can’t dissolve a central committee.”

Making the parties hold their elections, or billing them for using the public ballot, would give some relief to Buyse and Atkinson, not to mention taxpayers. But it might not be the best thing for democracy.

Molander with Sacramento Democratic Party said these elections give the average voter access to the parties they belong to.

“In my heart of hearts, I want all voters to care about who represents their party. I’m not sure how we’re doing in that regard. But I think it’s important for people to see that there’s accountability and that they can participate in the party they are registered in.”

And requiring the parties to hold their own elections might just make those elections more invisible. “No one would participate,” said John Sims, a professor at the McGeorge School of Law. Sims said that the state law is written so that the average voter has a say in the makeup of these powerful organizations.

“These private groups carry out important public functions. The fact that these elections are carried out in an open, transparent and regulated way, I feel pretty good about that,” said Sims.

And Sims said the tension between public policy and public money and the fundamentally private nature of the political parties is nothing new. “It’s a huge issue, historically. That’s how blacks were kept out of the political process in the South.” In particular, Southern Democrats practiced racially discriminatory policies well into the 20th century.

That tension—between the public and private aspects of the political parties—continues to the present day. In 1996, California passed an “open primary” law allowing voters to cross party lines and vote in primaries outside their own party. But in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court found the open primary law unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment rights of political parties.

It seems the parties can have it both ways, enjoying the rights of private organizations, but with public support for some of their core functions.

“It’s very costly,” Atkinson said. “If the public is OK with that, so be it. But I don’t think the public really knows about it.”