Voter guides spread across a table.
Voter guides in Santa Clara County are pictured in this file photo.

    The county voter information guide aims to help registered voters pick candidates. For some races, it facilitates this. For others, however, it’s an impediment.

    The problem is the steep cost to appear in the guide for certain candidates, including candidates for Congress, the state Legislature and a plethora of local offices. Only the independently wealthy or those generously funded by outside interests can afford it. The most hotly contested elections can attract this kind of funding, but for others it’s essentially left to candidates to pay, and it’s too costly.

    In 2022 I ran for a state office, California Assembly District 25, which comprises central and eastern San Jose. For the primary, the county charged me $4,684. I paid up. For the general election, it quoted $7,010. I declined. It would have eaten up too much of my budget.

    The only way to communicate with voters was through laborious door-to-door canvassing. I visited thousands of households, but it was a fraction of the registered voters who receive the guide.

    San Diego County charges half what Santa Clara County does. For a race like mine, the average cost was just under $3,500 for the 2022 general election.

    Moreover, San Diego County’s candidate statement charges are a maximum, but Santa Clara County’s are a minimum. The county warned us candidates that we could be billed further, in an unknown amount. A document the county produced in response to a Public Records Act request I made shows the final assessment could have been $8,290.

    At the same time it imposes these costs, Santa Clara County seems to know the situation is untenable. Accordingly, it covers the entire cost for county candidates. To run for supervisor costs $18,910 for a candidate statement, but the county pays the whole fee. Candidates pay nothing.

    Similarly, the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority subsidizes all but $500 for candidates for its board of directors. It, too, recognizes the unaffordability of the county’s voter guide statements.

    Moreover, it’s been arranged that candidates for judgeships pay 1% of the incumbent judge’s salary, or about $2,250 to $2,750. The judiciary has persuaded the authorities that the fees would otherwise be too high for judicial candidates. A judicial candidate’s entire fee is about half of a single item for my Assembly District 25, namely $5,114 for printing costs.

    We should be encouraging qualified candidates to run for federal, state and local offices, even if not backed by a lot of money. The high fee schedule discourages these things. The voter guide should further democracy, not be an impediment to it.

    I addressed the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors about this issue on May 16. Although I hope the county will find a solution, I am mindful of the ancient curse, “May you get what you wish for.” In future elections, a lower cost to candidates may mean that I have several opponents rather than the one I had in 2022. But I’ll take my chances rather than pay what could approach $20,000 to appear in the 2024 primary and general election voter guides.

    Ted Stroll is a retired judicial staff attorney and president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition, a nationwide mountain biking advocacy organization. He’s been a San Jose resident since 2007.

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