For independent voters, California lawmakers seek to end ballot confusion

Voters in Sherman Oaks line up at their polling place in a neighbor's garage to cast their ballots in the California presidential primary on June 6, 2016.
Voters in Sherman Oaks line up at their polling place in a neighbor’s garage to cast their ballots in the California presidential primary on June 6, 2016.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

In the days leading up to California’s primary three years ago, the complaints from unaffiliated independent voters started pouring in. They were promised they could vote in the closely watched Democratic race for the White House, but were handed a ballot without any presidential candidates.

That shouldn’t happen again next year, if a new proposal making its way through the Legislature has its intended effect.

“There seemed to be a misunderstanding,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said of what happened in 2016. “So we know what’s coming.”


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The confusion stems from state election law that differs from the rules laid out by the Democratic National Committee, which allows unaffiliated independent voters in California to participate in that party’s presidential primary. To do so, those voters must first request in advance a special ballot that lists Democratic candidates — a different process from state elections, where candidates from all parties are listed on all ballots.

Gonzalez’s proposal, Assembly Bill 681, would require county elections officials to deliver three separate notices to voters in the three months before the presidential primary next March. Each notice would clearly state the voter’s party affiliation on record, the presidential ballot that would be mailed to the voter and instructions on how to change one’s affiliation if desired.

The notifications would go to voters registered with parties, but were inspired by the many reports of independent “no party preference” voters who failed to request special ballots in time to vote in the June 2016 primary between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Clinton went on to a resounding victory. A group of Sanders supporters, angered by what they saw as confusing rules on how unaffiliated voters could vote in the Democratic primary, tried to convince a federal judge that spring to allow voter registration all the way until election day. The judge ultimately rejected the request.

Gonzalez said the only way to avoid a repeat in next year’s primary is to ensure voters know that they themselves — and not elections officials — have to be the ones to take action.

“We just want to make sure people understand that they have to make an affirmative step in order to vote in a presidential primary if they’re not registered as a partisan voter,” she said.


Unaffiliated voters have not been allowed to vote in recent Republican presidential primaries, a decision each party makes for itself.

AB 681 might also solve another common mistake: voters who don’t realize until election day that they are registered as members of the American Independent Party. A Times investigation in 2016 found large numbers of Californians who believed they were registered as unaffiliated voters but had actually registered with the obscure, conservative party — mistakenly choosing it on the voter registration form because of the word “independent” in its name. By offering repeated communication about registration status, the bill would give some of those voters time to consider making a change.

Gonzalez, who has announced her candidacy for secretary of state in 2022, said she hopes local elections officials will take advantage of provisions in the bill that allow the three notices to be delivered by email and text message for voters who provide that information.

“The different forms of communication can help if a voter misses one of them,” she said.

AB 681 was introduced in the Legislature last week and must clear both houses and be sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk by late summer.

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