The Electioneer

Chris Skinnell is a one-stop shop for ballot initiatives and most everything else voting-related

Published in 2020 Northern California Super Lawyers Magazine

The presidential election is on everyone’s minds this year. But Chris Skinnell is always thinking about elections—and their building blocks: redistricting, ballot initiatives, voting rights and campaign-finance laws. 

At the San Rafael office of government and lobbying firm Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni, Skinnell focuses on California. It’s not an exaggeration to say he has helped shape the state’s political landscape.

His clients include businesses, nonprofits, trade associations, individuals, unions and public agencies. Though 26 states allow voters to initiate laws—or, in some states, just vote on those already passed—by referendum, the process is especially widely used in California. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, 376 citizens’ initiatives appeared on state ballots between 1912 and 2018. 

Not everyone is a fan. Some argue the initiative process undermines representative government, and creates legal difficulties if voters pass competing initiatives with conflicting provisions. 

Skinnell, for one, is a fan. “The initiative process is an essential tool for California’s citizens to be able to bypass normal legislative processes and enact reforms that would otherwise be impossible,” he says.

He provides a one-stop shop for ballot initiatives: everything from drafting the language to completing the campaign-finance reporting requirements. If someone contests the language of the initiative, he can handle that. If there’s post-election litigation, he can handle that, too. 

At the University of Chicago Law School, Skinnell found a class custom-made for what he would eventually do. Called Voting Rights and the Democratic Process, it was taught by Barack Obama, then a state senator. “He was a visiting lecturer. It was a great class,” recalls Skinnell. 

In 2002, just as Skinnell was beginning his practice, the state passed the California Voting Rights Act, which radically reshaped the election landscape. It made it easier for plaintiffs to challenge at-large elections and seek to replace them with elections by districts, with politicians required to live in the same area as the voters they represent. 

“A lot of cities and school districts have voluntarily moved to district elections so they don’t have to worry about being sued,” says Skinnell, who has served as legal consultant to over 100 of these cities and districts. 

Skinnell has also been a key player in the way California voters choose candidates. He helped draft and served as counsel for Proposition 14, the “Top-Two Candidate Open Primary” amendment, which passed in 2010. Previously, parties held primaries open only to their members. Now, voters all receive the same primary ballot and can vote for anyone. 

This system, however, doesn’t apply to the presidential election.

“The motive behind the law was to address the expense of holding so many primaries,” says Skinnell. “It also invites more participation at the primary.” 

Skinnell handled litigation over the title and description in the voter’s guide. He also successfully defended the measure against five lawsuits.

He is also involved in a suit over whether a special tax—one for a specified purpose—requires a two-thirds vote of the electorate, or only a majority, if proposed by a ballot initiative. The two-thirds rule was set in place by Prop 13, the famed 1978 initiative that capped property taxes. In 1996, Proposition 218 limited government’s revenue powers by assessments and fees. In November 2018, San Francisco voters passed a local tax by a slight majority. Relying on a 2017 California Supreme Court case that differentiated taxes passed by initiative versus a governing body, the city is arguing that a two-thirds vote is no longer required. Skinnell, who represents the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, California Business Properties Association and California Business Roundtable, disagrees. 

“If San Francisco wins, it will open a huge loophole in Proposition 13 and Proposition 218,” he says. 

With the fall elections coming up, Skinnell is keeping busy. He’s working on a statewide measure in response to the “gig worker bill,” which classified many independent contractors as employees. He is also involved with the campaign opposing statewide rent control and another opposing raising medical malpractice limits. And he’s involved with the measure to increase funding for California’s stem cell research institute.

While some may be feeling overwhelmed by the ramp-up to the elections, it never gets old for Skinnell.

“There’s nothing cookie-cutter about it,” he says. “That’s what makes it exciting.” 

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