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“Qualified Elector” Doesn’t Mean What You Think

The mayor called ousted planning commissioner Ron Patrick a "qualified elector" in the City of Santa Clara, but what does that mean and does it matter?

Less than a month ago, the Santa Clara City Council removed a planning commissioner shortly after appointing him, saying a discrepancy regarding his address on the application to the commission was “misleading.”

The Council majority found it fishy that the commissioner, Ron Patrick, listed his Santa Clara business, a test equipment and systems manufacturing company located at 5191 Lafayette St., as his voting address. There was much back-and-forth about whether Patrick’s initially incorrect voting address disqualified him from serving on the planning commission.

According to City policy, it doesn’t.

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Still, the Council majority found the address switch suspicious, opting to rescind the appointment to the planning commission. Essentially, they felt that having someone on the planning commission who illegally lives at their business is simply a bad look.

In their opposition, dissenters Mayor Lisa Gillmor and political ally Council Member Kathy Watanabe pointed to Patrick’s being a “qualified elector” — politician talk for “eligible to vote in Santa Clara.” And they were right. Once Assistant City Clerk Nora Pimental notified Patrick that the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters (RoV) listed his voting address in Mountain View, Patrick switched it to his Santa Clara business.

But, for all the speculation that Patrick must have known he was voting in Mountain View and that Patrick’s removal was “political,” nobody bothered to ask — even for the public’s sake — why that switch was allowed.

State Law Trumps Local Control

The answer to why the RoV allowed Patrick to use his business as a voting address is that state law hamstrings it, forcing the RoV to accept business addresses as valid. AB 679, signed into law in July 2019, allows voters to use their business to vote if that business is their “domicile.”

Janora Blow, a spokesperson for the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters, said the RoV only verifies that a location exists. It cannot disqualify a voter for listing their business as an address. The RoV used to verify that an address was a residence, but AB 679 changed that.

“With all these new enhancements, things are beyond our scope,” Blow said. “They don’t tell us what their verification process is.”

The RoV simply checks that the address listed is in the database the law requires it to use, she said. Prior to AB 679, Blow and colleague Evelyn Mendez said the RoV would reject business addresses submitted as voting addresses. But now, the law has “pigeonholed” them.

“We cannot police addresses because you are swearing under penalty of perjury,” Blow said. “If they are willing to commit ‘fraud’…then it is a problem beyond us.”

Verifying and investigating any potential fraud would fall to the Sec. of State’s office. However, Mendez worked at the Sec. of State for 22 years. In all that time, she said she doesn’t recall ever even hearing about such an investigation.

Political Word Games

Joe Kocurek, a spokesperson for the Sec. of State, said he “didn’t know much about the law,” adding that the Sec. of State only “interrupts” it. Requests for an interview went unfulfilled at publication.

Still, the Senate floor analysis provides insight into the law’s intent. The author, California Assemblywoman Lena Gonzalez, cites Collier v. Menzel (1985), a successor to a 1984 federal case Pitts v. Black. In both cases, the court upheld the right of homeless people living in a park to list it as their address for voting.

Existing law pulls a bit of bureaucratese by insisting that “domicile” and “residence” are different. For those with one residence, they are the same. If someone has more than one residence, the one determined to be his or her “domicile” is governed by a variety of things.

A person’s “domicile,” according to the law, is whichever residence houses their family, where they claim a homeowner’s property tax exemption or a renter’s tax credit or is listed on their driver’s license, ID, or vehicle registration. Further, if the person has lived in the residence in the past year, it also qualifies as their “domicile.”

Another 1984 case, this one from the California Supreme Court, established that students attending college away from home still retain their right to vote in their home district. So, there is precedent for those living in “nontraditional living situations” to still vote somewhere they do not live.

In his plea to the Council, Patrick repeatedly dropped the phrase “nontraditional,” saying he lives a “nomadic, workaholic lifestyle” and that his Mountain View home is “filled with ghosts of the past.” Those “ghosts” include his ex-wife divorcing him and filing a restraining order against him for domestic violence.

Well-Meaning But Flawed

Despite its inclusive intent, problems are still abound with the law, which essentially allows someone to define whether they consider their business to be their home. In attempting to allow for a variety of living circumstances, such a claim is non-falsifiable because it relies on the voter’s feelings and apparently lacks oversight or objective criteria.

“It is a gray area if I am being honest,” Blow said. “It doesn’t give you clear and concise guidance on what is a business in which you can reside.”

State law doesn’t prohibit someone from registering to vote at their business if that address is the person’s true “domicile.” Gonzalez even acknowledges that “it could be argued that [AB 679] is unnecessary.” However, she contends, a “lack of clarity” has resulted in ballots being disqualified if the voter lists a business address as their voting address.

In the Collier decision, the court noted that “[t]he type of place that a person calls home has no relevance to his/her eligibility to vote if compliance with registration has been achieved, that is, the designation of a fixed habitation, the declaration of an intent to remain at that place and to return to it after temporary absences, and the designation of a street address where mail can be received.”

According to the Senate floor analysis: “… the fact that zoning or other restrictions prohibit a property from being used for residential purposes does not appear to be relevant in determining whether a person may use that property as the person’s domicile for voting purposes.”

In both cases, the court upheld that it was illegal to prevent residents from voting despite having “unconventional living arrangements.” In Patrick’s case, they are being used to justify allowing him to vote — and be appointed to a prominent City commission — in a city where his residence is debatable.

Missing The Forest For The Trees

Living in a manufacturing plant violates not only city code, but also the California Building Code. The City Attorney’s Office, in its report to the Council on this matter, even noted that the building Patrick claims as his voting address does not meet the requirements for occupancy.

Although they are correct in their assessment that Patrick is eligible to vote in Santa Clara, Watanabe and Gillmor leaning on the RoV’s qualification as if it ratifies his residence is misplaced. The RoV does not handle such matters.

Those supporting the law contend that disqualifying someone to vote because—as a letter by Feeding San Diego in support of AB 679 notes—they must employ “unconventional but necessary compromises” to get by, disenfranchises the poor. Situations like Patrick’s illustrate gaps in the law, allowing anyone to list a business as their voting address if it is expedient to them.

As the Election Integrity Project notes in its opposition to AB 679: “… voter rolls can no longer be researched for illegal address registrations because authorities would have to assume that everyone registered at a business address is living there under the circumstances allowed by this law.”

So, while Watanabe and Gillmor are correct in their assessment that Patrick meets the criteria for sitting on the planning commission, they miss the larger issue at hand. And although the issue of one voter using a business address under a particular questionable circumstance seems to have been resolved, the larger issue of how the law verifies whether someone lives in a particular jurisdiction remains unsettled.

“Local county election officials are responsible for processing and updating a voter’s record, including any address changes submitted by the voter,” Kocurek said in a follow-up email.

“Determinations of a voter’s residence or domicile, are often very fact-specific and involve a complex interplay of statutory requirements, including (Election Code section 349 and sections 2020 through 2035.). Many such determinations involve the intentions of the voter.

“Should a complaint arise that warrants further action, he continued,” the Secretary of State or a local district attorney’s office may investigate.”

Regardless of whether Patrick, or anyone else for that matter, is eligible to vote in Santa Clara, or any other city, local governments still have the authority to disqualify him for a city appointment based on their own judgment. At least for now.

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1 Comment
  1. David Baldwin 4 weeks ago
    Reply

    Thank you David Alexander for the excellent follow-up related to Ron Patrick’s removal from the planning commission. As you mentioned, it wasn’t the only issue, but the definition of a qualified elector was important in determining whether or not Patrick should have been removed from the commission. The article was a refreshing change from the usually practice of new outlets of abandoning a topic in the absence of new sensational information.

    If you are looking for another political subject to do a story on, a good topic would be identifying and detailing the special interest money sources that are trying to influence Santa Clara politics in the upcoming election (e.g., 49ers, unions, developers…). It’d help me and other undecided SC voters with our decisions in November.

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