Families don’t get much more staunchly Democratic than the one that raised Arianna Barrios. So it was no surprise that in 2008, when she made an unsuccessful bid for a board seat with Orange Unified School District, she was registered as a Democrat.
Then Barrios married a staunch Republican, which challenged her worldview. And she opened her own public relations, which sparked frustration with regulations that pushed her “a little more to the right.”
But the Orange native said she also didn’t agree with a trend where she saw both major political parties gravitating toward the “furthest fringe element” to win elections.
“I’m a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. I just felt very left behind.”
Barrios decided to leave the Democratic Party and join the growing number of residents locally, statewide and across the country who are registered to vote as “no party preference.”
Such voters already account for the second biggest registration bloc in California. In mid-2018, the number of no party preference registrations pulled ahead of Republicans statewide. Now, less than two weeks after Democrats overtook Republicans in Orange County, observers are already speculating about whether — or when — the rise of independents will make GOP the No. 3 political brand in formerly conservative Orange County.
Technical challenges could delay such a change, at least for a bit. Independent voters who want to participate in the presidential primaries currently face some hurdles. Also, there’s widespread confusion among people who believe they’re signing up to be politically independent when they register for the far-right American Independent party.
Pending legislation and a lawsuit aim to tackle both issues.
But since this enigmatic no party voting bloc can easily swing elections — particularly in places like Orange County, where fewer than 2,000 registered voters separate the two big parties — independents are finding themselves targeted by the very parties they’ve spurned. And those efforts have been paying off this year in Orange County, where voting data shows that in recent months more than 10,000 local independents moved back to the main parties.
The percent of independent voters in California steadily rose from 1999 to 2009, records show, growing from 12.9% to 20% of the electorate. The no party preference bloc grew by an average of 0.71 percentage points each year, picking off Democrats, members of third parties and, most significantly, Republicans.
But that growth slowed for several years, before 2015, when the no party preference bloc started to gain again, expanding by about 1.2 percentage points a year. By February of this year, no party preference registrations accounted for 28.3% of California’s electorate.
The registration numbers in Orange County generally have tracked the state trend. Irvine, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans, has the biggest slice of independents, at 34.7%, while deep red Villa Park has the smallest, at 21.7%.
The registration data reflects a likely anomaly that took place in the second half of last year, when no party preference surged at an unprecedented rate. Paul Mitchell, who tracks voter behavior for consulting firm Political Data Inc., pins that on the Department of Motor Vehicles’ automatic registration process, which initially required people to click a secondary online page to select a party. The issue was fixed Jan. 1 and the numbers have settled into more typical ranges. Now it’s up to voters who unwittingly registered as independents during that window to update their registration status.
Since April, the ranks of independent voters have fallen by a full percentage point in Orange County — something that might reflect the early (March 3) date for California’s 2020 presidential primary.
Mitchell said similar trends hit statewide each election cycle, as voters key in to party-oriented political messaging and register with a party so they can make sure to have a say in which candidates make it to the November general election.
Who are independents?
Registration data shows Barrios, who flipped to no party preference after being registered as a Democrat, took the political road less traveled. The biggest share of the NPP voting bloc — particularly in Orange County in recent years — is former Republicans.
President Donald Trump is the “toxic factor” driving the recent exodus from the Republican Party, according to veteran Newport Beach pollster Adam Probolsky with Probolsky Research.
“People are moving away from the party based upon the fact that he’s the leader and the party doesn’t reject him,” Probolsky said.
Conventional wisdom says independent voters behave at the polls much like their neighbors. Voters who aren’t registered with a major party tend to vote red in red communities and blue in blue ones. Since Orange County only recently flipped from red to blue (and neither party holds an outright majority) conventional wisdom suggests a good portion of the county’s 27.3% of voters who now are registered as NPP will support Democrats in 2020.
Despite their desire to steer clear of the two major parties, surveys show most people who are registered as no party preference, or who view themselves as independent, actually lean pretty strongly right or left in the ballot box, said Carole Uhlaner, political science professor at UC Irvine. In some cases, partisan lean is even more pronounced among NPP voters than it is among the average Democrat or Republican.
Randall Avila, executive director of the Republican Party of Orange County, said he’s knocked on doors of independent voters who said they left the GOP because they didn’t feel the party was standing behind Trump enough.
And then there are people like Barrios, who feels both parties have strayed too far from the center.
She’s among a growing group that would like to see a strong third party emerge in California — or at least for independent candidates to have a shot at state seats. But she thinks it’ll be years before those options are viable.
In the meantime, Barrios — who’s on the Rancho Santiago Community College District board and running for a city council seat in Orange — said she votes for candidates on both sides of the aisle.
“I love having that freedom,” she said.
Hurdles for independent voters
Freedom, of course, almost never comes free. And for Californians registered outside the two major political parties, freedom from party allegiance can mean headaches come election time.
Independent voters get to participate in the November general election and cast ballots for most partisan and nonpartisan seats in the primary. But each political party gets to decide by Oct. 21 whether to let independents vote for their presidential candidates in the next year’s primary.
In recent years, Democrats, American Independents and Libertarians have let NPP voters request partisan ballots to vote for their presidential candidates in the primary. The California Republican Party has not.
Cynthia Bryant, executive director of the California GOP, said the primary is the official process for choosing the California delegates to the Republican National Convention, and “we believe Republican voters should make that decision.”
By eschewing “party purity” and opening their primaries, Dan Howle, executive director of the nonpartisan advocacy group Independent Voter Project, said Democrats can build a database of voters who, while registered as no party preference, actually vote for liberals and liberal ideas. Those voters then can be targeted for advertising by the Democratic party in future elections. Also, those left-leaning no party preference voters can be urged to turn out and vote in presidential primaries, ballots that include lots of other offices and issues. Since California lets the top two candidates in the primary advance to the general election regardless of party, a left-leaning turnout in March could result in more down-ballot November races featuring only Democrats.
As the 2020 primary draws closer, county registrars must send postcards to independent voters who are registered to vote by mail. (In Orange County, that’s nearly 70% of independents.) Voters can select which eligible party’s crossover ballot they wish to receive, then mail the postcard back to the county so they receive the appropriate mail-in ballot.
Independents who miss those postcards can contact their registrar to request partisan mail-in ballots. And, if they don’t do so by mail, independent voters can request crossover ballots at their polling places on election day.
But data shows most independents won’t do that. Many later admit they didn’t know they could request partisan ballots.In the 2016 primary, just 18.5% of California’s independents and 19.6% of Orange County’s independents requested crossover ballots.
That means eight out of 10 independents — hundreds of thousands of people in Orange County and a few million statewide — didn’t weigh in on which presidential candidates made it to the November election.
The Independent Voter Project floated a bill that would’ve given NPP voters primary ballots that list all presidential candidates, from all parties, with the caveat that the state political parties would not be forced to consider NPP votes when choosing their candidate. But Howle said the bill’s sponsor dropped it at the last minute. Now, his organization is suing Secretary of State Alex Padilla, arguing the primary is not truly “open” because California’s 5.6 million independent voters may not have a voice in presidential candidates.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who is running for Secretary of State in 2020, recently introduced a bill that would require election officials to send all voters in California three notices leading up to a primary. The notices would tell the voters what party they are registered in, what type of ballot they can cast in a presidential primary, and how to change registration if they’re so inclined. The bill is in the Appropriations Committee’s suspense file, reserved for pricey legislation, since it would cost an estimated $25 million per primary election to implement.
State Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, authored a bill aimed at stopping California’s independent voters from mistakenly registering as American Independents.
Senate Bill 696 would prohibit the name of a political party from including the terms “independent,” “decline to state,” “no party preference” or any variation of those words. If the bill passes, the American Independent party would have to change its name on future ballots.
“If a voter wants true freedom from party affiliation, the state must ensure they are not misled,” Umberg said.
That bill also is in the Appropriation Committee’s suspense file due to the one-time cost of about $400,000 to update state voting records. But the bill has strong support and, if passed, could take effect before the March 3 primary.
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