California recently enacted a law to compel presidential candidates and gubernatorial candidates to disclose their tax returns as a condition for appearing on the primary ballot. The presidential rule was targeted at Donald Trump; the gubernatorial rule added at the behest of Gavin Newsom, who was voluntarily disclosing tax returns anyway. While Jerry Brown had vetoed a similar bill, Newsom signed the bill. A federal district court and the California Supreme Court independently enjoined enforcement of the presidential primary component (which I discuss, among other things, in Weaponizing the Ballot, recently published in the Florida State University Law Review; enjoined, despite the serial assurances of its constitutionality mentioned in Newsom’s signing statement).
On the gubernatorial side, Division 8 of the Elections Code includes rules for the primary. Section 8902(a) provides, “Notwithstanding any other law, the name of a candidate for Governor shall not be printed on a direct primary election ballot, unless the candidate, at least 98 days before the direct primary election, files with the Secretary of State copies of every income tax return the candidate filed with the Internal Revenue Service in the five most recent taxable years, in accordance with the procedure set forth in Section 8903.”
Newsom now faces a gubernatorial recall election. A number of candidates filed to challenge him.
One might think that this tax disclosure provision would not apply to a recall election. After all, the Code uses the word “primary,” not “recall.” Ballot access for a recall election is governed by an entirely separate part of the Elections Code, Division 11. Professor Jessica Levinson at Loyola Law School noted that it’s “going to be hard to overcome a plain language problem.”
One might think. But it didn’t dissuade California’s Secretary of State from summarizing that “gubernatorial candidates,” not primary candidates, are required to disclose tax returns. And she enforced the rule, dutifully disclosing the sordid details of dozens of candidates, which you’re welcome to peruse here, and excluding any candidate who failed to comply.
One prospective candidate, Larry Elder, failed to comply with the law, apparently inadvertently failing to redact some information from his tax returns. He sued, and a state court found he should appear on the ballot. As the court said, “I don’t find that Mr. Elder was required to file tax returns at all.” By its plain text, the statute applies to primaries, not recalls.
Whether other candidates were improperly excluded from the ballot for failure to file tax returns remains to be seen. Did it “scare off” any candidates? Time will tell if the California recall ballot gets much longer in the days ahead as the recall election rapidly approaches and ballots need to be printed.