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Capitol Journal: California’s voter registration form looks like it was written by a chimpanzee. Fix it

A California voter registration form.

A California voter registration form.

(Los Angeles Times)

About 400,000 Californians who might be planning to vote in the state’s pivotal Democratic presidential primary June 7 could be in for a shock.

They’ll be told, “Sorry, your vote’s no good here.”

They’re getting rooked, although they primarily rooked themselves.

The state also is to blame, however. It sat back, not giving a hoot, and allowed this to happen. It should have been protecting the voters.

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These are the Californians who carelessly signed up with the late George Wallace’s obsolete, inconsequential, far-right American Independent Party, apparently believing they were registering as an independent — small “i” — nonpartisan voter.

They’ll find that the only so-called presidential candidates they can vote for in the primary are some obscure AIP members who probably couldn’t be elected local crossing guard captain.

There’ll be no Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders on their ballot. No Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or John Kasich.

To vote for a Democrat, you must be registered as either a Democrat or “no party preference.”

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Sanders is probably losing some California support because many self-described independents who are inadvertent AIP members won’t be allowed to vote for him. Sanders has been cleaning up with nonpartisans all over the country where they’ve been permitted to vote. They weren’t Tuesday in New York, and the Vermont senator was trounced.

A recent California Field poll found that likely voters registered as nonpartisans supported Sanders over Clinton by roughly 5 to 4. That’s the opposite of registered Democrats. Counting both groups, Clinton led by 6 percentage points.

To vote in the GOP primary, you’ve got to be a registered Republican. My guess is that most right-leaning, independent-thinking AIP members would side with Trump.

Fortunately, it’s not too late for these Californians to correct their mistake. They’ve got until May 23 to reregister as a Democrat, a Republican or with no party at all.

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The latter is officially categorized as “no party preference,” though not on the confusing voter registration form, which looks like it was written by a chimpanzee.

It asks people: “Do you want to disclose a political party preference?”

Disclose? As in, disclose whether you cheated on your taxes? On your spouse?

If someone answers “yes,” there’s a list of eligible parties to choose from, and the first — in alphabetical order — is American Independent. I hate alphabetical order anyway, being an “S.” And in this case the party names should be rotated.

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We also should return to the question that was asked on the voter registration card eight years ago, before it was clumsily altered. Back then it was simply: “Do you want to register with a political party?”

Secretary of State Alex Padilla could probably change it back on his own.

What’s sorely needed, however, is for the Legislature to pass a law banning the word “Independent” from the name of a political party. The word is disingenuous because it conveys a false meaning.

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That’s especially true when increasing numbers of voters are registering as independent nonpartisans. At last count it was up to 24% of the electorate. And by my calculation, it would be around 26% if many voters hadn’t mistakenly joined the AIP, which accounts for 2.7% of those registered. (Democrats are at 43% and Republicans are down to less than 28%.)

Maybe all that’s really needed is to tweak an existing law. It forbids a new party name so similar to an existing one that voters could be misled. The word “independent” clearly is misleading.

After the 2016 election, the Legislature should make sure these confusions never happen again.

If it were a problem that affected the Democratic Party — maybe even the GOP — you can bet it would have been fixed long ago.

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The voter fog involving the American Independent Party and nonpartisan independents has been known for decades by political pros, pollsters and many journalists. But the only evidence was anecdotal.

Then The Times published a story Sunday that verified the confusion based on polling.

The survey — conducted by a bipartisan polling team — interviewed 500 AIP members. It found that 73% thought they were registered as independent voters without a party affiliation. That equates to 345,000 of the state’s 472,000 AIP members.

Fewer than 4% of those surveyed actually knew they were AIP members. More than twice as many thought they were in the GOP, and even more believed they were Democrats. Moreover, 3.4% figured they were in some sort of nonpartisan party, although no such thing exists.

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All told, based on the poll, nearly 400,000 believe they are either nonpartisans or Democrats and, if they were correct, could vote in the Democratic presidential primary.

“It’s like going into a restaurant,” says Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc. “Everybody gets served a tuna salad sandwich. But only 4% remember ordering a tuna salad sandwich.

“I find myself being offended by a mass violation of voter intent. It’s definitely violating these voters’ intent to not be associated with a political party.”

Any voter, regardless of party, can participate in a California open primary for state office or Congress. It’s only presidential primaries that have party restrictions.

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“I’m open to change,” Padilla told me regarding the registration confusion. “But it’s not something that can be done overnight. We’re up to our eyeballs now with the June primary.”

OK. But before the next presidential election in 2020, the state should get rid of this inexcusable nonsense.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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Colleen’s story: That time I realized I was registered with the wrong party

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Would-be independents joining the American Independent Party could blame California’s voter registration card

Check or change your voter registration before the May 23 deadline


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