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Former Senate candidate from Laguna Beach continues fight against state over 2016 voter guide

Former Senate candidate from Laguna Beach continues fight against state over 2016 voter guide
Laguna Beach resident Paul Merritt, who ran for U.S. Senate last year, claims California Secretary of State Alex Padilla "illegally censored" his candidate statement heading by listing Merritt as having no political party preference. (File Photo)

Laguna Beach resident Paul Merritt, who ran for a U.S. Senate seat last year, is not through battling California Secretary of State Alex Padilla over language that state voters saw in their information guides for the June 2016 primary.

Attorney Gautam Dutta filed a challenge Monday in U.S. federal court in Santa Ana to Padilla’s motion to dismiss Merritt’s third complaint related to a lawsuit originally filed in April 2016.

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A hearing on Padilla’s motion is scheduled for Dec. 18.

Merritt alleges Padilla “illegally censored” the heading of his candidate statement by changing it from “registered independent voter” to “no party preference” in the voter information guide, according to court records.

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The edit “deprived California voters of critical information necessary to evaluate a candidate for U.S. Senate,” according to Dutta’s filing.

“We’re seeking vindication of my client’s rights to make sure other candidates do not have to go through what he went through,” Dutta said in an interview.

Merritt, a self-employed trust administrator focused on real estate and stocks, has alleged that Padilla violated his due process rights under the Constitution by changing the heading of his candidate statement.

According to Padilla’s motion to dismiss, filed Aug. 17, the heading of each candidate statement is not part of the statement but is a label created by the secretary of state’s office to identify the candidate to voters.

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Under state election law, a candidate who has not disclosed a preference for a qualified political party on his or her voter registration affidavit is identified as having no party preference, Padilla’s motion stated.

The June 2016 primary had six qualified parties: Green, Republican, Democratic, American Independent, Peace and Freedom and Libertarian, according to the state’s election website.

According to Padilla’s motion, Merritt had no constitutionally protected right to choose his own party preference label or make any other political statements in the candidate statement heading.

Dutta disagreed, arguing in court documents that the heading was part of Merritt’s candidate statement.

Dutta cited state election law that bars any part of the voter guide from being amended unless a voter or the secretary of state files a lawsuit during a period when the public can review the unofficial guide before it goes to print.

The public examination period lasted from Feb. 23 through March 14, 2016, according to court records. According to Padilla’s motion, Padilla did not file a lawsuit challenging Merritt’s candidate information before changing Merritt’s party preference in the voter guide.

Merritt, who ran for Laguna Beach City Council in 2014, said he called the Orange County registrar of voters office in late March 2016 asking whether there had been any objections to his personal statement.

He said he was told there weren’t any but he discovered the change after reading a copy of the state voter guide.

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“No politician in their right mind would put ‘no’ next to their name,” Merritt said at the time. “I find it offensive. No party preference signals, ‘Gee, this guy is wishy-washy, this guy can’t pick a party.’

“It’s not that we didn’t pick a party. We don’t want to be a part of any party.”

Merritt did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

Sam Mahood, Padilla’s press secretary, declined comment Tuesday.

Merritt finished 29th out of 34 candidates in the primary, receiving 24,031 votes, according to the secretary of state’s office. The top two vote-getters in the primary advanced to the general election in November 2016. Voters eventually elected Kamala Harris to the Senate post vacated by Barbara Boxer, who opted not to run for another term.

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