Not What You Think It Means: California’s Non-Independent “Independent” Voters


[Image via ericherboso]

For the first time in a long time, California’s presidential primary voters are poised to play a huge role in the nomination campaigns … but a recent LA Times piece reveals that many voters who consider themselves independents could be in for an unpleasant surprise on Election Day:

With nearly half a million registered members, the American Independent Party is bigger than all of California’s other minor parties combined. The ultraconservative party’s platform opposes abortion rights and same sex marriage, and calls for building a fence along the entire United States border.

Based in the Solano County home of one of its leaders, the AIP bills itself as “The Fastest Growing Political Party in California.”

But a Times investigation has found that a majority of its members have registered with the party in error. Nearly three in four people did not realize they had joined the party, a survey of registered AIP voters conducted for The Times found.

That mistake could prevent people from casting votes in the June 7 presidential primary, California’s most competitive in decades.

Voters from all walks of life were confused by the use of the word “independent” in the party’s name, according to The Times analysis.

Residents of rural and urban communities, students and business owners and top Hollywood celebrities with known Democratic leanings — including Sugar Ray Leonard, Demi Moore and Emma Stone — were among those who believed they were declaring that they preferred no party affiliation when they checked the box for the American Independent Party.

These voters may find themselves shut out – and very unhappy – on June 7:

Republicans have a closed primary this year. Democrats will allow voters registered as having “no party preference” — the state’s formal term for an unaffiliated, independent voter — to cast a ballot. But a voter registered with the American Independent Party will only be allowed to vote for presidential candidates on the AIP ballot.

“And now, I’m going to have to tell them,” said Jill LaVine, Sacramento County’s registrar of voters. “And this is going to hit them hard…”

“I think the name should be something different,” said Gail Pellerin, Santa Cruz County’s registrar of voters. “Right now, it’s misleading.”

“I had a voter totally break down and cry in my lobby,” Pellerin added, recalling a young woman who wanted to vote in the 2008 Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but couldn’t because she’d registered with the American Independent Party.

“The poor thing just sobbed,” Pellerin said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Registration forms – and the alphabet – may be contributing to this phenomenon:

Six political parties are listed in alphabetical order on California’s voter registration card, and choosing a party preference comes near the end. The American Independent Party is at the top. [Image here]

The forms ask if the voter wants to “disclose” a political party preference and register with one of the six parties, and only those who check “No” are considered independent of all parties.

The Times’ own research suggests that many AIP voters – including the aforementioned celebrities – are on the rolls because of this kind of confusion:

Of the 500 AIP voters surveyed by a bipartisan team of pollsters, fewer than 4% could correctly identify their own registration as a member of the American Independent Party.

“That’s what we call a finding with real statistical viability,” said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster who helped craft the survey in collaboration with The Times and Republican pollster Val Smith. “It’s overwhelming and it’s indisputable…”

The Times obtained the list of all Californians registered with the American Independent Party through a public records act request. A review of the rolls discovered the names of some well-known celebrities, verified by their birth dates. Most of them said their registration in the party was a mistake.

“The views of this party do not accurately reflect my personal beliefs and I am not affiliated with any political party,” Kaley Cuoco, best known for her role on “The Big Bang Theory,” said in a statement to The Times. “As such, I am taking the necessary steps to immediately remove my name as a member of this voting party.”

Stone and Leonard plan to re-register before the June election, representatives told The Times.

Moore has both contributed money to and campaigned for President Obama. Her registration as an AIP member is wrong, a representative said.

“Demi Moore is not, nor has ever been, a member of the American Independent Party,” the representative said. “Any record that states otherwise is a mistake.”

This may seem amusing – Hollywood celebrities baffled by election laws [cue laughter]! – but it’s actually quite serious; while many states are moving to make their election processes as open and easy-to-navigate for voters, partisan affiliation rules and other election laws can frustrate that goal (whether by accident or by design). In some ways, voters may be victims of this drive for openness – now that the state runs a so-called “top two” open primary for other races, party affiliation doesn’t much matter except in presidential primaries (and party central committee elections, to which most voters don’t pay as much attention).

In the meantime, state officials say they have to accept the party’s name as is:

How, or whether, to address voter confusion over the name of the American Independent Party is not a question easily answered. The party has been officially qualified for years, and elected officials are hesitant to require it to change its name.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who reviewed a copy of the poll provided by The Times, said he hadn’t considered taking any steps to address the confusion, either.

“My office isn’t in the business of censoring or amending a political party’s name,” he said. “It’s a very imperfect process…”

“I don’t think this is that big of a deal,” said state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), chairman of the Senate Elections and Redistricting Committee. “What really matters is your ability to vote in the way you want to vote.”

Local elections officials say absent any change in election law, they will keep trying make sure that voters are well-informed when they register their party preferences.

Absent a name change, one possible solution would be to list “no” as the first choice for voters’ party affiliation, but that would likely create opposition from the two major parties because it would almost certainly drive up the number of “no party preference” voters who might otherwise choose an affiliation on the current form.

In the meantime, California local officials have been alerting voters through the media about the AIP issue, letting them know that they have until May 23 to update their affiliation in time for the June primary.

None of this matters in November, of course, but it’s a big deal on both the politics and entertainment pages between now and June 7. Stay tuned …


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