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There soon could be a new 'unknown' voter category in California

 (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

As part of the budget deal expected to be passed by the end of this week, California will create a new category to describe voters, in addition to the eight existing options that exist, including Libertarian, the state's American Independent Party and No Party Preference.

The new category will label voters as having an "Unknown" party preference and would apply mostly to voters registering at the Department of Motor Vehicles, where a new voter registration process recently was implemented .

As many as one-third of voters registering at the DMV since the program began April 1 have walked out without completing important questions about their party preference, language preference or vote-by-mail status. All of those questions must now be answered on separate, touch-screen terminals in another room .

While they are still registered to vote, their party currently defaults to "No Party Preference," a designation that accounts for almost 1 in every 4 California voters.

Starting next year, when the state's new motor-voter law goes into effect, those voters instead will be labeled as "Unknown." State officials have said that law, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, is expected to ultimately enroll millions of new voters.

But with the DMV already registering tens of thousands of voters under its new protocol, and with a sizable portion of voters walking out before completing all of the steps, this week's budget agreement seeks to bridge the gap until the law takes effect.

"Unknown" voters, by law, wouldn't be counted as part of the total number of registered voters for the purpose of determining a party's ballot eligibility.

So why make the distinction? A handful of people close to the negotiations around last year's motor-voter law said that at least part of it was politics, and that the change was made after top-level negotiations among legislative leaders in the final days before the bill's passage.

Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc. which sells voter data to campaigns and their consultants, says he sees the "Unknown" voter category as a way for Democrats and Republicans to fight the perception that more voters are rejecting parties altogether.

"The consolation prize is that, yes, the train is headed in the direction where people are going to be registering in greater numbers without a party ... but we'll allow you to call them something different for the sake of face-saving in the future," he said.

Mitchell says distinguishing between a voter who purposefully chose not to be affiliated with any party and one who might have overlooked that step can be valuable for purposes of voter targeting, particularly if the person is a new voter with little to no past political activity from which to draw.

"There were a lot of campaign consultants concerned about the harm that it would do to their targeting, the inability for them to be able to identify the right voters," if unaffiliated voters were lumped in with those who simply didn't complete the DMV's two-step process.

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