Essential Politics: California independent voters begin to fade

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This is the March 22, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

It has been a touchstone of California politics over the past three decades that the fastest-growing group of the state’s voters was shunning partisan labels in favor of being identified as unaffiliated voters, engaged in politics but not parties.

The 30-year run for that bit of conventional wisdom has, at least for now, come to an end.

No longer having ‘no party preference’

Friday’s report from Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a biennial look at voter registration in between scheduled statewide elections, tallied 22.1 million registered voters, a historic 88% of all eligible Californians. And as it’s been for much of the past century, Democrats accounted for the largest share — 46.2% of the registered electorate and near double the percentage of Republicans.

But the real surprise was the state’s shrinking share of unaffiliated voters, those who proclaim “no party preference” in their registration. Those voters made up only 23.7% of the registered electorate, a drop of almost 5 percentage points over the last two years and their first decline in any of the state’s odd-year registration reports dating to 1991.

“We are living in polarizing times and the intense partisanship on display in Washington, D.C., is likely having an impact on Californians’ political alliances as well,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.

While the ranks of Democrats have continued to grow, Republicans have managed to stop the bleeding — especially notable as just three years ago, we were reporting how Republicans had fallen to the third-largest group of voters, eclipsed by the “no party preference” electorate. In 2016, I wrote about how new and younger California voters were moving away from the two-party model.


It should be pointed out that the real boost in partisan voter registration came in 2020 and that we’ll have to see if this holds. Still, the new report has generated some buzz. Eric McGhee, a longtime researcher of voting trends at the Public Policy Institute of California, said it’s strange to think that “after 30 years of growing partisan polarization, now would be the time voters decide the parties matter,” especially given how California’s top-two primary rules make party allegiance irrelevant in state and congressional contests.

Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2006, and “no party preference” voters clearly have had a party preference when it comes to Democratic candidates — a significant change from the 1990s and early 2000s when these voters were key to election victories for former Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In fact, those voters were so important that self-styled election reformers championed efforts to create an open primary in California, first in 1996 and then again in 2010 with help from Schwarzenegger. But those changes failed to produce either independent or third-party winners in candidate contests. (The only unaffiliated member of the Legislature, Yucca Valley Assemblyman Chad Mayes, was a Republican legislative leader who left the GOP in 2019.)

It’s too soon to know whether a trend is in the making and what the slower growth of the independent voter movement means for California elections and governing. But for now, it’s remarkable to see a three-decade march toward dominance stopped in its tracks.

Exclusive: Leading California women decry ‘sexualized racism’

A bipartisan group of California women, including many of the state’s most prominent officials, have signed a letter condemning the stereotypes of women of Asian descent they believe should be called out in the aftermath of last week’s mass shooting in the Atlanta area.

Their letter, obtained by The Times on Sunday after a weekend of rallies across California, cites “a legacy of hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian American and Pacific Islander women” which underlies data showing they are disproportionately the victims of anti-Asian hate crimes.

We have been hypersexualized and fetishized for centuries,” says the letter signed by a group including state Treasurer Fiona Ma, state Controller Betty Yee and more than 300 legislative and local leaders. “It’s become a practice that has been so normalized, we are forced to carry this trauma on our own, day after day.”

The effort was organized by Jodi Hicks, the president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, who said a number of people still view these viewpoints of women of Asian descent as compliments.


“I think the incident opened up some wounds that I know I had,” Hicks said. “And we felt we could lend our voice in this conversation.”

The letter calls out cultural institutions in the media and Hollywood as perpetuating a powerful and dangerous caricature. “Repeated portrayals of either a ‘China Doll’ or a ‘Dragon Lady’ as well as forced submissive, hypersexual, or exotic representations, have contributed to an intersection of racism and misogyny uniquely dangerous to Asian women,” they write in the letter.

On the doorstep of the Newsom recall qualifying

Elections officials in California’s 58 counties have until the end of April to review and validate signatures submitted on the petition to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, with more than 2 million turned in by last week’s deadline. But it’s possible we’ll know much earlier whether Newsom’s critics have pulled it off.

State officials reported Friday almost 1.2 million signatures have already been validated — a tally inching up to the almost 1.5 million needed to trigger a special election later this year.

The governor, who has conceded the recall is likely to qualify, launched a campaign last week to keep his job and Democrats promised to rally around him. Meanwhile, a third Republican — former Rep. Doug Ose — says he’ll run in the replacement contest alongside businessman John Cox and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Watch this space: a new California attorney general

Newsom will make a big announcement as soon as Monday, selecting someone to fill the remaining 21 months of the current term as California’s attorney general, after Xavier Becerra won Senate confirmation last week as President Biden‘s secretary of Health and Human Services.

It will be the third big vacancy Newsom has filled in as many months. Two politicians with significant state government experience — Oakland Assemblyman Rob Bonta and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg — are considered to be on the short list, along with Santa Clara County Dist. Atty. Jeff Rosen and Contra Costa County Dist. Atty. Diana Becton.

Then again, a number of prominent Democrats have either informally or formally lobbied for the job. Both houses of the Legislature will have to confirm the new attorney general, who will also face a 2022 election season in which other hopefuls could throw their own hats into the ring.

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National lightning round

— Less than a week before eight people were killed in the Atlanta-area shootings, congressional Democrats introduced legislation to bolster the Department of Justice’s ability to address COVID-19 hate crimes.

— Few U.S. states require a waiting period to buy a gun, but that may be changing.

— U.S. and Chinese officials got off to a markedly undiplomatic start in their first face-to-face meeting since Biden took office.

— In March 2020, the Trump administration put into place one of the most controversial and restrictive immigration policies ever implemented at the U.S. border — and in January, Biden quietly continued it.

Today’s essential California politics

— Newsom’s stay-at-home order one year ago last week marked the beginning of an unprecedented health and political crisis that would see his decisions increasingly questioned and his popularity wane.

— Students in California can now sit three feet apart in classrooms — instead of four or six feet — in guidelines state officials issued Saturday, a major change in policy that will exert pressure on local officials for a faster and more complete reopening of campuses.


— The expected cost of administering COVID-19 vaccines in California has grown to $1.3 billion, a price tag made public Thursday as the state also rolled back sweeping changes to a program run by Blue Shield of California.

— A former prosecutor and U.S. Marine Corps veteran said he will challenge Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer to become the region’s top prosecutor next year in a race that is poised to test the climate for justice reform.

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