vision 2020

California May Move to ‘Unrig’ Rules Affecting Independents

Lorena Gonzalez, author of legislation requiring notification of California independents of their presidential primary options. Photo: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

One of the election-system issues that Bernie Sanders supporters complained about most loudly in 2016 involved California’s complicated rules governing self-identified independents. The root problem is this: The courts have decreed that the state’s top-two blanket primary, in which anyone can participate and all candidates from every party are listed, cannot be imposed on party presidential primaries, which are (most years, anyway) held at the same time as state and local primaries. So voters are presented with separate ballots.

Registered independents (in California, they are termed “No Party Preference” voters) get a state and local ballot with all candidates on it, just like everybody else. But they only get a presidential primary ballot (a) if the party holding the primary has chosen to let them participate (in 2016, Democrats said yes, Republicans said no), and (b) they affirmatively ask for one. A lot of voters don’t know that until they arrive at the polls, or never figure it out. It’s even more complicated for the majority of voters who choose to vote by mail, and have to request the right ballot at the right time. Hence the argument that the system is “rigged,” based on the fact that Bernie Sanders was very popular among independent voters participating in Democratic primaries everywhere, including California.

Relief for confused California indies may be on the way via legislation being offered by rising-star California assembly member Lorena Gonzalez, according to the Los Angeles Times:

Gonzalez’s proposal, Assembly Bill 681, would require county elections officials to deliver three separate notices to voters in the three months before the presidential primary next March. Each notice would clearly state the voter’s party affiliation on record, the presidential ballot that would be mailed to the voter and instructions on how to change one’s affiliation if desired …

Gonzalez said the only way to avoid a repeat [of the 2016 complaints] in next year’s primary is to ensure voters know that they themselves — and not elections officials — have to be the ones to take action.

“We just want to make sure people understand that they have to make an affirmative step in order to vote in a presidential primary if they’re not registered as a partisan voter,” she said.

The notice requirements will also perhaps ameliorate a different problem that got a lot of attention in 2016: the fact that a lot of self-identified California independents have been registering as members of the American Independent Party, the right-wing sect founded by George Wallace in 1968 as a vehicle for his presidential run. It’s a zombie party that keeps its ballot status precisely because of this sort of misunderstanding. No, election officials can’t come out and ask: Are you sure you really are a racist? But letting independents know they’re not actually registered as members of no political party might help clear it all up.

Perhaps Gonzalez’s bill is a step toward a quieter post-primary conversation in 2020. And it probably won’t hurt her own already announced candidacy for secretary of State in 2022 (incumbent Alex Padilla will be term-limited out).

California May Move to ‘Unrig’ Rules Affecting Independents