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Politics

Newsletter: California’s surge of independents fades as voters choose sides for March 3

Essential Politics
(LAT)

The rush of Californians to abandon political parties and declare themselves free agents is over. For now, at least.

Almost three weeks from what could be the state’s most important presidential primary in decades, voters are increasingly choosing sides. That’s the big takeaway from California’s new voter registration report.

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The running total, contained in the next-to-final report before the March 3 primary, found a slight decrease in those who have declared “no party preference” since the last statewide snapshot from October. Meanwhile, the ranks of Democrats and Republicans grew.

Roll back a full year and the trend is even more noticeable.

California voters choose sides

The ranks of the state’s unaffiliated voters fell by almost 354,000 from February 2019 to last month. In that same period, each of California’s six recognized political parties saw their registration totals grow.

One year ago, a majority of voters in five California counties were Democrats; now, add three more counties — including Los Angeles — to that list. Republicans made up the majority of no counties last winter; now, they are tops in the tally from two counties, with pluralities clustered in the far north of the state and the Sierra foothills.

One thing we know for sure is the pause in the growth of independent voters isn’t because Californians are tuning out. Just the opposite: Total voter registration now stands at more than 20.4 million, an increase of almost 450,000 voters from the winter of 2019. Almost 81% of the state’s eligible voters are now registered.

Simply put, more voters seem to be choosing sides. Researchers and political strategists have long noted that California’s unaffiliated voters aren’t without party preferences (no matter the name they’ve been given under state law) but rather shunned party labels. And the new data don’t change the long-term trend away from strong partisanship in registration: Unaffiliated voters now make up almost 26% of voters, a 2 percentage point rise from the same moment in time before the 2016 presidential primary.

But clearly this election has led a noticeable number of voters to make different choices. While unaffiliated voters can participate in the Democratic presidential primary next month if they request the correct ballot, some may find it easier to just become a Democrat. On the GOP side, non-affiliated voters are barred from participating and must re-register to cast a ballot.

Other theories also have been suggested since the new report came out last week, including scattered reports of Californians who registered to vote at the DMV under its automated “motor voter” program and might have been confused by the display of questions related to selecting a political party, possibly later changing their affiliation.

And finally, back to the idea that this could be short-lived. The latest statewide voter report includes the number of “pre-registration” forms filled out by 16- and 17-year olds. Those teens will then have their registration become official when they turn 18. The report issued last week shows 38.4% of those pre-voters chose to be unaffiliated, almost equal to those who chose the Democratic Party. (And a warning for Republicans: Only 14% of these pre-voters plan to join your ranks when they turn 18.)

It’s getting real (ID)

Few parts of California’s sprawling state government offer its taxpayers a better chance to see what they’re paying for than the Department of Motor Vehicles. And some six months after Gov. Gavin Newsom selected a new DMV director and promised a major improvement to an agency with a variety of woes, one big problem isn’t getting better fast enough.

Data collected by The Times show that two years into the DMV’s required switch to licenses that are compliant with the federal Real ID act, the agency has only issued those new licenses to 25% of California’s 27 million drivers. And while DMV needs to be issuing more than 1 million Real ID-compliant licenses a month, the total for January was just 381,570.

“We are very concerned,” said DMV Director Steve Gordon, who was appointed last year by Newsom.

Those scheduling a time to get a Real ID are being told they have to wait three to four months for an appointment, so DMV officials are now urging people to go to a field office as a walk-in.

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Campaign 2020

— The new shape of the Democratic presidential race became apparent within minutes after Friday night’s debate began: Former Vice President Joe Biden stood at the middle podium, but no longer at the center of attention.

— Five key takeaways from the New Hampshire debate.

— Biden had a lot on his mind this weekend, reports Mark Z. Barabak.

— Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign plans to ask for a “partial recanvass” of the results of last week’s Iowa caucuses.

— On the eve of the Granite State’s primary, Sanders and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg seek to stay in the lead while Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar try to get back into the top tier.

— Buttigieg came under stepped-up attack from fellow Democrats eager Sunday to slow his momentum by highlighting his struggle to attract African American support, his lack of broad government experience and willingness to collect checks from well-heeled campaign donors.

— Gay rights activists see Buttigieg’s showing in the Iowa Democratic caucuses as a historic breakthrough.

Today’s essentials

— The speaker of the California Assembly has reprimanded Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) and her chief of staff for inappropriate workplace conduct, citing allegations that the Democratic lawmaker hugged and kissed an employee and that her top aide made “inappropriate sexual comments.”

— The California Senate has agreed to pay $310,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former employee who alleged that the upper house and former Sen. Tony Mendoza fired and retaliated against her for reporting an allegation that the lawmaker sexually harassed her co-worker.

— The push to remake California from a state of single-family homes and suburban sprawl into one of apartments near transit stops and jobs has run into a brick wall: Los Angeles.

Ellen DeGeneres drew wild cheers from her studio audience when she announced each person in attendance would receive a $500 bundle of Scratchers tickets. A whistleblower complaint filed by some California Lottery employees argues the agency’s giveaway of the tickets — which have a combined face value of $212,500 — should be investigated as a “misuse of funds.”

— Political leaders are calling for actions that could directly or indirectly expand the responsibilities of cops in managing the tens of thousands of California’s homeless people who live outdoors. But many rank-and-file officers are tired of being asked to be both social workers and enforcers.

— After a series of sweeping expansions to expand access to voting in recent years, a California lawmaker is pushing to require voters to cast ballots in future elections.

— One of California’s most influential legislators, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) has written laws to expand the rights of workers, women and immigrants. In most cases, success has come not in spite of her willingness to pick a fight but because of it.

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