California is at risk of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of voters in the March 2020 presidential primary election. The problem is so large it could impact who becomes the Democratic nominee.
Voters in the Golden State are accustomed to seeing candidates from of all parties on the same ballot. This, of course, is how we vote for governor, and members of the state Legislature and the U.S. Congress.
We have every reason to believe that if we are registered to vote, we will be able to weigh in on the presidential primary contest without doing more. But voting for president is different.
The rules for presidential primaries are set by the national political parties — not California’s secretary of state or local county officials. And the national parties have divined a process sure to trip up millions of nonpartisan voters.
If you are a nonpartisan voter, there is a different process for how you vote in the presidential primary versus any other election.
If you registered as “no party preference” — previously known as “decline to state” — your ballot will not include any presidential candidates unless you take an extra step. The same applies to those registered with a party so small it isn’t officially recognized. (For instance, maybe you wrote in “Whig party” on your voter registration.)
If you are a nonpartisan voter, you may request a ballot from the Democratic, Libertarian or American Independent parties. Only those three parties allow nonpartisan voters to “cross over” into their primary elections. You cannot ask for a crossover ballot to vote in the Republican presidential primary, because that party’s leaders closed their primary to nonpartisan voters.
If you are a nonpartisan voter who votes the old-fashioned way, at a polling place, you only need to ask your poll worker for a presidential ballot that includes the Democratic, Libertarian or American Independent candidates. But if you are set to receive your ballot in the mail, you will have to complete and return a postcard you should have received from your county registrar.
Voters that can’t overcome this procedural hurdle — and there may be as many as 600,000 of them, based on an analysis of 2016 data — won’t be able to vote for a presidential candidate. That’s enough votes to decide who will be the Democratic nominee.
How did this become a problem so large it could swing an election?
Nonpartisan voters in the state are hugely important, comprising nearly 30% of the electorate. They are the state’s second-biggest voting group after Democrats. They are also the fastest-growing, youngest and most diverse segment of the state electorate.
In addition, voting by mail has exploded. In 2020, over 15 million voters in the state will receive ballots in the mail. Since nonpartisans who vote by mail have to ask for a crossover ballot to vote in the presidential primary, the state had to mail out 4.2 million crossover ballot requests. In Los Angeles County alone that’s 930,000 postcards, squeezed in between holiday greetings and packages from grandparents.
Most worrisome? Many nonpartisan voters are unaware of or confused by the requirement to request a “crossover” ballot to vote in the presidential primary.
Polling by Capitol Weekly shows that 17% of nonpartisan voters believe they are registered Democrats and another 7% think they are registered Republicans. Even if these registered nonpartisans understand the rules they won’t think the crossover ballot request applies to them. Pair this with the massive growth in voting by mail, driven in large part by the state moving entire counties or large parts of them — like Los Angeles County has done — to voting by mail. And voters maybe being unaware they have to vote by mail.
In sum, millions of voters receiving these cards have forgotten they are registered as nonpartisan, or are unaware they will be receiving ballots in mail for the March election and won’t be able to vote in person.
Finally, the deadlines printed on the postcards to request a crossover ballot only confuse the matter. Most Los Angeles County postcards say they need to be returned by Dec. 20 or Dec. 31. But it’s not too late.
If one of these postcards is sitting on your kitchen counter and the return date has passed, just send it in. Despite the “deadlines” on the postcards, the registrar will accept requests for crossover ballots up to seven days before the March 3 election, making Feb. 25 the actual deadline for requests. The request can even be made online.
The 2020 California presidential primary is being held three months earlier, allowing it to potentially play a more important role in the nominating process. When we voted in June, the presidential primaries were already largely decided. Now that they have been moved to March, and we will vote on Super Tuesday along with nine other states, California’s 416 pledged delegates could make the state’s primary relevant again.
If large numbers of us are unable to vote for our preferred presidential candidate, that may not happen.
Recent polling shows record levels of voter excitement, and 75% of nonpartisan voters say they want to vote in the Democratic primary. So far, it appears that only 9% to 15% are returning the postcards that would allow them to vote for a presidential candidate.
Where does this leave us? In the middle of an election official’s nightmare. A large percentage of voters (nonpartisans who vote by mail) in a significant presidential primary may be disenfranchised because of a barrier put up by political parties.
If you’re registered as a nonpartisan and vote by mail, take the extra step that will allow you to vote for a presidential candidate — or go the extra mile and vote in person.
Jessica A. Levinson is a professor at Loyola Law School and founding director of Loyola’s Public Service Institute. @LevinsonJessica
Paul Mitchell is vice president of Political Data Inc. and owner of Redistricting Partners. @paulmitche11