It’s now easier for California voters to declare their independence. New voter registration cards rolling out this month help clarify how people can choose not to register with any political party. They are one more step toward making the voting process more user friendly and responsive to the will of the people, but lawmakers could make things even less confusing.
More than one-third of voters choose not to register as either a Democrat or a Republican. Some of them choose third parties, but the majority want none of the above. How they do so has never been intuitive.
In the past, the most obvious way to register as an independent was to check the box on the line with the word “independent.” Obvious, but wrong.
The word “independent” is part of the “American Independent Party.” That’s an actual, very conservative, political party, not the place for an unaffiliated voter. It and five other parties — Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, Green, Democratic and Republican — have qualified to appear on California voter registration cards.
More than half a million Californians have registered for the American Independent Party, most of them mistakenly. The head of the party scoffs at the notion that people meant to choose something else, but when the Los Angeles Times contacted party members a couple of years ago, three-quarters thought they were unaffiliated independents not American Independents.
The difference mattered in 2016 because Democrats allowed unaffiliated voters to take part in their presidential primary. Millions of non-Democrats had a chance to help choose between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Republicans restrict their presidential primary to members. The American Independent Party endorsed Donald Trump.
This year, it is not as big a deal. California’s top-two primary system — another voter-engagement initiative — allows anyone to vote in the June 5 statewide primary, regardless of party affiliation. Just make sure to register by May 21. You can do so online at registertovote.ca.gov.
Political party affiliation is a core part of many people’s identity. Registering as a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Green makes a statement. Party members sign onto a web of ideas and policy positions. They also dislike the other side. The Pew Research Center found that negative views about the other major party motivate Democrats and Republicans.
Those who prefer to be unaffiliated deserve a clear opportunity to make their voter registration statement without the risk of winding up on a member of a fringe party because they did not read a card carefully enough.
The new card isn’t ideal. It lists the six qualified parties and then “I do not want to choose a political party preference.” Preference? What’s that? Independents want to register as “none of the above” or simply “independent.” This should not be so hard.
As long as the American Independent Party can ballot-squat on the word, there will be confusion. Lawmakers could fix that. They long ago outlawed new parties with names so similar to existing parties that they might cause confusion. They could end this confusion altogether by allowing the secretary of state to give genuine independents an obvious choice when they register to vote.