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Nonpartisan voters face hurdles in California presidential primary

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With the presidential nominating contest about to conclude in California, elections experts are warning that voters who aren’t registered with a party could miss out on a chance to help pick the Democratic standard-bearer.

As California’s fastest-growing voter bloc, people without a party play an increasingly instrumental role in elections. They can vote in this year’s Democratic primary, which will cap a nominating process in which candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are still competing.

But they must take some extra steps to do so, fueling concerns that the additional requirements will prevent unaffiliated voters from participating.

4,141,860Registered California voters without party preference as of Jan. 5, 2016

“It’s a big snafu caused by paperwork, and it’s going to end up disenfranchising some voters who want to vote in a Democratic primary,” said Political Data Inc. Vice President Paul Mitchell.

More than 4.1 million registered voters in California declined to declare allegiance to a specific party. The ranks of the unaffiliated have grown steadily, rising from 19 percent in 2008 to 23.8 percent as of April.

For Republicans, election rules keep things in the party. You must be a registered Republican to vote for a Republican presidential candidate. The California Democratic Party is more lenient, allowing no-party-preference voters to help choose its nominee.

There’s a catch, however. Primary election ballots landing in the mailboxes of partyless voters do not include presidential candidates. For that, they’ll need to specifically request a Democratic primary ballot or show up to vote in person. Mailing in the ballots that don’t contain presidential candidates would prevent them from also voting in the presidential primary.

Even if someone comes to them later and says ‘you can still vote if you go to the polling place,’ maybe they’ve already mailed in their ballot. Maybe they can’t get to the polling place.

Political Data Inc. Vice President Paul Mitchell

Postcards informing 83,229 no-preference voters in Sacramento County they’d need to switch their registration or request Democratic ballots went out around the end of March or beginning the April, said county Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine. But she still expects some voters to be surprised when they open their mail ballots.

“They’re going to be calling us and saying, ‘I want something else,’ ” LaVine said. “I am anticipating more phone calls, more changes.”

The effective deadline to seek presidential ballots is May 31, LaVine said. Voters hoping to shift their registration must act by May 23.

The prospect of voter confusion isn’t worrying party officials, said spokesman Michael Soller, noting that they have been working to push information out to voters.

“We think everybody who wants to vote in the Democratic primary is going to get counted,” Soller said. “Any no-party-preference voter who wants to vote has multiple chances to do it. They can even go on election day and request a ballot.”

Not necessarily, Mitchell argued. Postcards can get overlooked. People accustomed to California’s open primary system might not grasp the extra presidential rules until it’s too late. Getting to the polls could be a burden for people who are busy with work or for those like college students who live far from where they’re registered.

There will be “people who open up their ballot, see there’s no Democratic presidential candidates, and think they missed the deadline and screwed up,” Mitchell said. “Even if someone comes to them later and says ‘you can still vote if you go to the polling place,’ maybe they’ve already mailed in their ballot. Maybe they can’t get to the polling place.”

Such extra hurdles are one cost of a conscious decision to disassociate from major political parties, argued Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, chair of the Assembly committee overseeing elections.

“When folks decide they’re going to have no party preference, they know this is a party system in terms of the presidential election. So you’re basically saying you opt out of the party process,” Weber said.

“I just hope people will go vote,” Weber added. “Maybe if we discover that folks are not taking advantage of it anymore, we will do a better job, maybe, of advertising this is what you can do.”

The California secretary of state’s office has worked to advertise the rules with postings to the agency’s website, a Web video and press releases.

And campaign partisans have worked to enlist no-party-preference voters. A Sacramento for Bernie Sanders group on Facebook posted a message on May 8, blaring “IMPORTANT,” telling no-party-preference voters how they can obtain Democratic presidential ballots.

“Go to the extra effort please! Every vote counts!” the post reads.

A self-described liberal who for years eschewed the Democratic Party, 66-year-old Sacramento resident Raymond Lee, said he just switched his registration to Democratic so he vote for Sanders. But he worried that other Sanders supporters might not be as proactive.

“I think that’s a real grave concern,” Lee said, saying Sanders supporters “realize there’s potential confusion here, so they’re putting it as a high priority to make sure people understand” what they must do cast presidential primary ballots.

But political science research demonstrates the difficulty of getting people to take the initiative – “very few people opt in when they have to opt in,” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Kousser said the potential lost votes would hurt Sanders more.

“This is a group he does better with – independents – than with traditional Democrats,” Kousser said. “This is going to be a close Democratic primary, and it could make the difference between Hillary Clinton taking a victory lap in California or limping into the party’s nomination.”

Christopher Johnson illustrates Kousser’s point about opting in. Political parties don’t much appeal to the 35-year-old Sacramento resident, who years ago rejected what he saw as their “black-and-white” ideology in deciding to not affiliate with any political party.

He has never voted in a California presidential primary. Though he’s eligible to participate in this year’s Democratic contest, he’s not sure his vote would matter. And the hassle of getting a presidential ballot doesn’t encourage him.

“I have to weigh the burdens of going in or trying to fill stuff out and get it vs. not,” Johnson said. “It definitely factors into the decision – the whole risk-benefit analysis of whether it’s worth taking an hour or two or whatever takes.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert

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