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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

California’s Indies May Struggle to Vote in Democratic Primary

As a California resident, I have some insights on the growing brouhaha over independents’ voting on Super Tuesday, which I shared at New York:

There are increasingly loud complaints from the Bernie Sanders camp about the difficulties independent voters face in California in participating in the Super Tuesday primary, as Politico reported recently:

“Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders charged Friday that California’s primary system threatens to disenfranchise millions of independent voters whose support he has cultivated in the nation’s most populous state.

“Sanders said Friday during a press conference in Santa Ana that he and his team have been campaigning hard to reach California’s 5.3 million ‘no-party-preference’ voters, who now represent the second largest voting bloc in the state at 25.9 percent — ahead of Republicans, who comprise 23.7 percent …

“’Unfortunately, under the current NPP participation rules, we risk locking out millions of young people … millions of young people of color — and many, many other people who wanted to participate in the Democratic primary but may find it impossible for them to do so,’ he said. ‘And that seems to me to be very, very wrong.’”

The root of the problem here is that party preferences in California have become relatively insignificant thanks to the establishment via a 2010 ballot initiative of a nonpartisan top-two primary system in which everyone in the state gets the same ballot for sub-presidential contests that includes all the candidates competing regardless of party, with the top two vote winners proceeding to the general election. But voters are still asked to designate a party preference when registering, which makes those registration rolls a hot property for campaigns and other purchasers, and also guides the one partisan primary still remaining: the quadrennial presidential primaries.

What makes this affirmative requirement especially tricky is that big majorities of California voters now vote by mail, which means there’s not going to be some friendly election official in their faces to explain to NPP voters how to participate in the Democratic primary. So election officials have sent vote-by-mail NPP registrants postcards, which they are asked to return if they want to “replace” their empty NPP ballots with a chock-full-o-candidates Democratic ballot. It has not worked very well, as Capitol Weekly reported last week:

“To participate in the open Democratic presidential primary, independent voters need to request the partisan ‘crossover’ ballot.  To expedite this, counties sent all vote-by-mail independent voters a postcard for them to select their partisan ballot and then return the card to the registrars.

“But as the cards were mailed to independent voters over the holidays, very few of these voters responded to get the crossover ballots that would allow them to participate in the Democratic primary …

“Remarkably, only 9% of California’s growing independent and vote-by-mail population have successfully obtained a partisan presidential primary ballot. For 91% of nonpartisan voters, there is no presidential race on the ballot they received in the mail.”

We’re talking 3.7 million voters with those empty NPP ballots, even though a significant majority of them wanted to vote in the Democratic primary. Given Sanders’s regular over-performance among indies generally, he probably will be affected most, with Mike Bloomberg also taking a disproportionate hit.

There’s another, smaller (if still quite significant) problem for nearly 600,000 voters who are registered members of the American Independent Party. The AIP is the zombie survivor of George Wallace’s 1968 third-party candidacy that’s stuck around all these years mostly because voters persistently misunderstand the “independent” in the right-wing party’s name and think they are registering NPP. A bill to force the AIP to change its name to get “independent” out of it was vetoed this year by Governor Gavin Newsom on grounds that it was likely unconstitutional. In order to vote in the Democratic presidential primary, these low-information voters will have to change their party registration.

Now all these indies who have missed the deadline for requesting a Democratic ballot by mail can still fix the problem by showing up on primary day (so long as they haven’t already mailed in a ballot) and asking for the Donkey option, and presumably Team Bernie is letting them know that. But in response to the steady decline in live Election Day voting, some California counties have been replacing traditional precincts with “voting centers” that may confuse some by-mail voters. And in the state’s largest county, Los Angeles, new touchscreen voting machines are being deployed on March 3, which could create some additional confusion and delay.

Even if Sanders wins the state easily, which he is favored to do (FiveThirtyEight gives him a five-in-six chance of carrying the state), a shortfall in indie voting could cost him some delegates. So you will definitely hear about this on March 3.

The other problem all the candidates — and the news media — will be dealing with on March 3 is California’s slow count of ballots, which is mostly attributable to the rule allowing mail ballots postmarked by March 3 (and received by March 6) to be counted. These and other late mail ballots have to be opened individually and tabulated, which takes a while. But candidates who see themselves ahead on Election Night but then lose later aren’t happy about it, and some of them hint darkly at “fraud” or other dirty deeds (e.g., California Republicans after they lost half their U.S. House delegation in 2018). Unlike Iowa, California has baked late returns right into the electoral cake, and people just need to get used to it as a by-product of reforms to make it easier to vote — if not easy enough for a lot of indies.

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