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Confusion over ‘independent’ voters in California prompts redesign of voter registration card

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The new California voter registration card.
(Secretary of State’s Office)

The card millions of Californians use to register to vote is receiving its first makeover in more than a decade, inspired in part by confusion over how to become an “independent” unaffiliated voter — a problem highlighted by a Los Angeles Times investigation in 2016.

“It’s an issue that’s been lingering for years,” said Secretary of State Alex Padilla. “But that was the first time it was really in the spotlight.”

The Times found a substantial number of Californians who registered with the American Independent Party wrongly believed they weren’t part of any political party — an error that later kept some from casting ballots in the state’s 2016 presidential primary.

“A combination of issues prompted us to see if there was a better way,” Padilla said.

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The postage-paid voter registration card was last revised in 2008. The forms are widely distributed in state and local government offices and through volunteer voter registration drives. Californians have until May 21 to register for the June 5 statewide primary.

Perhaps the most noticeable change is the new card’s instruction, in a larger font size, on political parties. For those who want to remain unaffiliated, the card now gives them a box to check next to a new selection, “No Party/None.”

That might help voters see the distinction missed by some in earlier versions between being an “independent” voter and selecting the American Independent Party — a conservative political group founded in 1968 to boost the presidential campaign of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace. The party joined Republicans in nominating Donald Trump in 2016.

You aren’t an independent voter in California if you checked this box »

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“For people who wanted to say ‘no party,’ this design is going to help them make that choice,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.

The new voter registration cards will be distributed as soon as the end of this week, and officials say the design was completed without spending more money. Work on the new voter registration card began early last year. State elections officials consulted with voting rights advocates and local registrars on the best way forward.

“I think the new form moves us to a better position,” said Dean Logan, registrar of voters in Los Angeles County, who was part of the working group. “I think that it will result in more completed forms coming in, and should reduce the confusion.”

Changes are also planned for California’s online registration site — registertovote.ca.gov — to better highlight whether to pick a party or take a pass. The site is popular, as 40% of all newly registered California voters since 2017 used it to sign up.

The focus of criticism has been the traditional paper registration document. Prior to 2008, Californians who wanted to opt out of choosing a party had to search for the option at the bottom of a list labeled, “Political party — fill in one oval.” That year’s revision resulted in a form that allowed a mark to placed next to a new statement reading, “I don’t want to register with a political party.”

In 2011, however, the wording became more complex. When voters changed the rules governing political primaries — a ballot measure that emphasized “party preference” — elections officials deleted the reference to party registration.

The new form, while attempting to simplify the choice, still uses the 2011 phrase, “I do not want to choose a political party preference.” That may not be intuitive, some say, because non-party voters often prefer a party when it comes time to fill out the ballot — they just don’t want to be labeled.

“I think a lot of people are still wrestling with what ‘preference’ means,” said Alexander. In an interview, Padilla said additional clarity would have to come from the California Legislature.

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“Given current state law, we did everything we could,” he said.

Padilla said lawmakers also would be the only ones who could weigh in on whether a party should be able to use the word “independent” in its name — the word elections officials say voters frequently latch onto in a quick scan of the registration form.

Column: Lawmakers haven’t considered ways to limit confusion on being an “independent” voter »

Markham Robinson, the chairman of the American Independent Party’s executive committee, said his group remains opposed to any such effort. He said critics are biased if they aren’t also asking “all the other parties” about confusion regarding their names.

Robinson also rejected the idea that confusion is a key reason that his party now represents more than a half-million Californians — almost quadruple the next closest group in size, the state’s Libertarian Party. He described a voter’s political party as an “incidental aspect of registration” and said that questions about voter confusion were “speculative.”

Still, a survey conducted for The Times in 2016 found 73% of American Independent Party voters believed they were unaffiliated with any party. Voters from all walks of life — including celebrities, business leaders and the spouses of candidates — said they incorrectly filled out the forms.

Alexander praised officials for the new registration card because it embraces “the plain language movement” in election materials. She said it’s especially important when the documents must later be translated into languages other than English.

While California’s top-two primary has made state and congressional elections open to all voters — thus muting the impact of registration mistakes — presidential primaries still limit participation based on a voter’s affiliation. The new registration forms are part of a broader series of changes that election officials hope will avoid a repeat of prior problems by the time the California presidential primary is held two years from now. Those changes include a new law that will allow voters to register and make changes to their partisan affiliation on election day.

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“This is part of an overall process to modernize the elections process,” Logan said. “This positions us to be in a better place in 2020.”

john.myers@latimes.com

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