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California sues Huntington Beach for voter-approved ID requirement for elections

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(The Center Square) – California Attorney General Rob Bonta and Secretary of State Shirley Weber filed a lawsuit against the City of Huntington Beach over its voter-approved ID requirement for voting in city elections starting in 2026.

While Bonta alleges the city’s requirement violates state election law because the city tends to consolidate its elections with federal and state elections, city lawyers say the legislature’s ongoing attempt to pass a state law banning local voter ID requirements demonstrates such a law does not exist.

The voter ID measure, approved by 53.4% of city voters in the March 5, 2024 election, requires voters to prove they are citizens, 18 or older, and residents by showing government-issued identification. The ballot measure also approved proposals to require the city to monitor ballot drop boxes and provide more handicapped accessible polling locations.

Bonta has also warned drop box monitoring could go against state law banning video recording with the “intent of dissuading another person from voting.” Bonta did not elaborate how city recording of ballot boxes could dissuade voting.

In a letter to Huntington Beach before the election, Bonta explained the city’s ID requirement would violate state election law saying: a voter’s identity or eligibility to vote may only be questioned by election workers on narrow grounds, and only with evidence constituting probable cause to justify such a challenge; a challenged voter need only take a sworn oath of affirmation to remedy the challenge; and all doubts are to be resolved in favor of the challenged voter.

“By requiring additional documentation to establish a voter’s identity and eligibility to vote at the time of voting — a higher standard of proof than set out in the Elections Code — Huntington Beach’s proposal conflicts with state law,” wrote Bonta.

In its defense, the city cites the state constitution, which says city charters provide, “in addition to those provisions allowable by this Constitution, and by the laws of the State,” say over “conduct of city elections” and “the manner in which, the method by which, the times at which, and the terms for which the several municipal officers and employees whose compensation is paid by the city shall be elected or appointed.”

The voter ID requirement amended the city charter to add a provision saying that when state and charter provisions for municipal elections conflict, charter provisions — including the voter ID requirement — shall prevail. While the city says its rule only applies to municipal elections, the fact that the city’s elections tend to happen at the same time as county, state and federal elections means that it could be unclear to voters which election they have to present identification for.

Bonta’s lawsuit, meanwhile, affirms standard doctrine that the state’s city charters system leaves cities with supremacy over municipal affairs, “state law is supreme with respect to matters of ‘statewide concern,” and that in the case of the city’s election qualification law contrasting with state election law, state law supersedes the city charter.

In a press release, City Attorney Michael Gates said, “The Attorney General’s press release that the city’s Voter ID requirements violate state law is inconsistent with, in fact in direct conflict with, (state) Sen. David Min’s, D-Irvine, new bill attempting to make Huntington Beach’s Voter ID illegal.”

Min’s SB 1174 was introduced in the month before the March 5 election approving the voter ID measure, and would both prohibit local voter ID laws, and would “include findings that changes proposed by this bill address a matter of statewide concern rather than a municipal affair and, therefore, apply to all cities, including charter cities.” SB 1174 passed the Senate Elections Committee and is set for its next hearing with the Senate Local Government and Finance Committee on May 1.

In response to Bonta’s lawsuit and Gates’ claim, Min said in a public statement that while it’s “clear that no charter city can implement election requirements that might impact voters voting for county, state, or federal elections,” without SB 1174, “it is not yet decided, and therefore ambiguous, whether a charter city could hold its own elections—with its own unique election requirements—at a different time and place from other elections.”

“SB 1174 would clear away any ambiguity and make clear that charter cities could not implement their own voter ID requirements under any circumstances,” continued Min.

If SB 1174 does not pass or is determined to be illegal, some legal experts say Huntington’s measure could be upheld if the city ran completely separate elections from county, state, and federal elections that would continue to be run by the county.

“They would have to train staff to administer an election and to maintain its own election equipment,” said Nahal Kazemi, an assistant professor at Chapman University’s law school, to City News Service. “It would be difficult, expensive and challenging for a city to undertake this.”

Kazemi noted this would probably confuse voters, which she says is “the strongest argument the state has.”