The Orange County Registrar of Voters in Santa Ana, Calif., on March 5, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Huntington Beach voters will decide during the March primary if voters in future elections should be required to show ID, if ballot drop boxes should be monitored, and if the city should limit which flags are flown at city hall after a judge on Dec. 28, 2023, dismissed legal challenges to the issues.
Resident Mark Bixby filed suit in November 2023 in an attempt to prevent the questions from showing up on the upcoming ballot, alleging that a voter ID requirement would violate state law and that the amendments weren’t posted in time for public review.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Nick Dourbetas denied Mr. Bixby’s request to have those questions removed from the ballot, ruling that such actions would disrupt residents’ right to vote on the issues.
Referring to a 1982 California Supreme Court decision, the judge said legal challenges to the constitutionality of the changes—if they’re approved by voters—should be done after the election.
The judge also ruled that Mr. Bixby’s defense failed to account for a deadline extension request submitted by the city for posting the charter amendments after a corrected version of the amendments was posted. Initially, an incomplete version was released because of a clerical issue, according to city officials.
Voter ID and ballot box monitoring will be combined into one item on the ballot.
The flag regulation will be a separate measure, after the city voted in February 2023 to fly only governmental flags at city facilities—those representing the city, county, state, and prisoners of war or those missing in military action. While critics said the flag regulation was targeting the LGBT Pride flag, supporters said it can promote unity.
Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates told The Epoch Times that he was pleased with the judge’s ruling.
“I always believed that the voters should have a chance to weigh in on something like this. This is what democracy is all about,” he said. “To have that kind of attempt at election interference was wrong, and I’m glad the court sided with the city of Huntington Beach.”
In a statement emailed to The Epoch Times, Mr. Bixby said his fight against the city isn’t over, and he would be back if the issues are approved by voters.
“A municipal voter ID law is wrong; it violates the constitutional rights to vote and state law, and we intend to ensure that it never gets imposed in the City of Huntington Beach. Voters should vote down this nonsense, and if they don’t, we will make sure that the courts strike it down,” he said.
Mr. Bixby’s lawsuit claims that if the city were to require voter ID, it would violate California’s elections code, which requires voters to provide only their name and address in elections.
“A municipal voter ID law is a violation of the state Constitution. ... The right to vote is not limited to statewide elections, nor can the right be made contingent on additional burdens that local governments may seek [to] impose,” attorneys argued in the complaint.
In his ruling, Judge Dourbetas indicated that if the voter ID requirement was passed and implemented, the city would be vulnerable to more legal challenges.
“This Court declines to intervene at this stage. ... If this measure were to pass, and if its implementation raises an issue of constitutionality, at that point, it may be appropriate for judicial review,” he wrote.
A vote-by-mail ballot in Irvine, Calif., on Sept. 17, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Huntington Beach was also warned earlier in 2023 of possible legal action by California’s top law enforcement and election law officials over the same issue.
Attorney General Rob Bonta and Secretary of State Shirley Weber, the state’s chief elections official, argued in a September 2023 letter to the council that the city’s proposed changes suppress voters from participating in local elections.
“The City’s proposal to require voter identification at the polls in municipal elections conflicts with state law and would only serve to suppress voter participation without providing any discernible local benefit,” they wrote.
Under state law, election workers have little authority to question voters, who are only required to verbally affirm, if questioned, their eligibility. Under state elections code, anyone found to have illegally cast a ballot is subject to criminal prosecution.
Mr. Bonta and Ms. Weber warned city officials that if they continued with the changes, they would be met with challenges, specifically regarding the voter ID requirement.
“If the City moves forward and places it on the ballot, we stand ready to take appropriate action to ensure that voters’ rights are protected, and state election laws are enforced,” they wrote.
The two officials also warned that ballot drop box monitoring could be illegal if implemented incorrectly, because under California elections code, “video recording a voter within 100 feet of a polling place,” or a ballot box, with the intent to dissuade another person from voting is illegal.
A ballot drop box at the Orange County Registrar of Voters in Santa Ana, Calif., on March 5, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
When asked in October about a voter ID requirement, Orange County Registrar of Voters Bob Page told The Epoch Times that to remain impartial, he couldn’t comment on the legality of the issue because his agency would implement such changes.
During the August 2023 city council meeting when the topic was first discussed, Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland said a voter ID requirement would help to instill more trust in the process for local voters.
“I do believe this brings more comfort into the election process and people trust the election results more if you have a voter ID,” he said at the time.