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'No party,' 'coffee party' candidate sues over state's new top two primary rules

February 23, 2011 |  1:49 pm

Adding a new wrinkle to the already-hot-though-still-unofficial contest to replace retiring Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), a minor-party candidate has filed suit in federal court over California's new "top two" elections system.

Venice resident Michael Chamness alleges the new system will give one of the most prominent candidates, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, a Democrat, an edge because Chamness will not be allowed to list his political affiliation on the ballot and instead will be designated as having "no party preference." Chamness' "coffee party" is not among those recognized by the state.

Chamness also complained about the system during his unsuccessful run for a state Senate seat in last week's special election. Under the new system, approved by voters last year, all candidates appear on a single ballot and the top two vote getters advance to a runoff, regardless of political party. (Special elections can be decided in the primary if one of the candidates wins a majority.) Candidates have the option of listing a party preference or not.

In a statement about his lawsuit, scheduled for a hearing March 21, Chamness said it was "unjust to discriminate against a candidate like myself" because he isn't affiliated with one of the parties recognized by the state.

His attorney, Gautam Dutta, said, "It's unconstitutional, undemocratic and just plain wrong to force any candidate to lie to voters."

The governor cannot call a special election to replace Harman until she resigns her 36th Congressional District seat, expected Monday, to lead a Washington think tank. But several candidates, including Bowen and Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, perceived as frontrunners, already have said they will run and have set up campaign organizations.

--Jean Merl