Two years ago this month, The Times investigated one of the longest-lingering questions in California politics: Are some voters mistakenly joining a political party when what they really want is to be an electoral free agent?
The answer seemed to be yes, with substantial evidence of citizens who thought they were an unaffiliated "independent" voter but instead registered with the American Independent Party. And no, those aren't the same thing.
The American Independent Party was organized 50 years ago in California to boost the presidential candidacy of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, best known for his support of segregation. Current party leaders insist those days are long gone, focusing now on a platform opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage while praising the 2nd Amendment and border security. In 2016, the party joined Republicans in nominating Donald Trump for president.
More than a half-million Californians are now registered as members of the American Independent Party. The AIP's share of first-time registrants since 2017 is more than three times the size of any other minor party — even as the AIP's website still showcases information from 2016 and has no statewide candidates this year. All the while, its leaders continue to boast of it being "the fastest-growing political party in California" — which has come at the same time that more Californians are rejecting parties outright and registering as "No party preference" voters.
The American Independent Party has maintained official recognition by the size of its registration. Asked for comment via email, an AIP leader dismissed this column as "another hit piece on us" and the idea of widespread voter confusion as "speculative."
In 2008, top state elections officials privately circulated a memo that suggested the Legislature could pass a law banning party names with words such as "American" or "United States" or "independent." The litmus test would be applied when the party renewed its official status, after each gubernatorial election. The goal, the memo said, would be to "reduce or eliminate the number of people who think they're registering" as an unaffiliated voter.
Such limitations are rare but real. Wyoming, for example, has long banned the word "independent" in the name of any new political party. California, though, bans only names that are "so similar to the name of an existing party so as to mislead the voters" — a regulation that's silent on the potential pitfalls for voters who refuse to join a party.
Confusion has been reported by Californians from all walks of life — students, celebrities, even the incoming owner of this newspaper. Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who is buying the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, is registered as a member of the American Independent Party. A spokesman says it was a mistake and Soon-Shiong is changing his status to "no party preference."
The issue caught fire in 2016, when unaffiliated California voters were invited to cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary. Those who discovered on election day that they were in the American Independent Party were out of luck. One Santa Cruz County AIP voter balked, successfully persuading a judge to let her switch affiliations and cast a ballot.
Sacramento lawmakers have largely dismissed the issue for years — either over concerns about forcing a name change or because, as Democrats and Republicans, they're not that worried about non-party voters. And so voter education may be the only solution, including more clarity in voter registration materials.
Political data researcher Paul Mitchell, perhaps California's most impassioned critic on the issue, used to send AIP voters a card on April Fool's' Day to show them what they'd done. With that annual celebration now upon us, it might be worth logging on to the secretary of state's website to check your status. If you end up surprised, just remember that you're not alone.