A quarter of California’s voters are ‘no party preference’: Will they turn out?

Opinion by Ben Polsky and Mike Norton
March 2, 2020, 2:45 a.m.

On Tuesday, Californians will cast their primary ballots earlier than in any previous election. This is exciting news. It means that California, the largest state in the union, might influence the outcome before the race is decided. For over a quarter of registered voters in California, however, this opportunity could go unrealized.

In California, 25.5% of all registered voters are registered as no party preference (NPP). In theory, the designation allows citizens the option of maintaining a voting “identity” that corresponds to their true political persuasion. In practice, California’s nearly 5 million NPP voters must overcome additional hurdles to vote in Tuesday’s primary. NPP voters who intend to vote by mail in the Democratic Party must actively request what is known as a “crossover” ballot (if you’re an in-person voter, you’ll simply request a partisan ballot at your polling place). NPP voters planning to vote in the GOP primary must relinquish their NPP status and re-register as Republicans. Yet even among NPP voters willing to saddle these burdens, more undue barriers exist. 

We called all 58 counties in California to see what voting procedures were in place for NPP voters. What we found was disturbing. By law, NPP voters must be able to request a primary ballot via phone, email, internet (if there is a website) or post. This means that any registered NPP voter should be able to call up their local county’s office and request a Democratic ballot-by-mail in a matter of minutes. But by our count, at least nine counties accept a crossover ballot on a restricted basis. That means that voters in specific countries are not able to call or email to request a ballot.

Counties are required to send postcards to NPP voters informing them of how to vote. But even if these voters read the postcards, they may well walk away confused and misinformed about how and when to vote. One postcard notes simply, “Return postcard by January 2, 2020. Ballots will be mailed after February 3, 2020.” The problem is that this is simply not true. As with any vote by mail request, voters have until seven days before election day to request a ballot. If they want to vote in the Republican primary, they have until 14 days before the election to re-register.

The Jan. 2 deadline struck us as completely arbitrary. Why would counties actively distribute a false deadline? It was a mystery until one clerk told us plainly: They had received the instructions from the office of the secretary of state, as included in this memorandum. When we asked county registrar offices about this discrepancy, they said they put arbitrary deadlines to make sure they had enough ballots to send out, but slightly under 60% said they would accept crossover requests after their suggested deadline. Regardless of intent, this practice misinforms voters in a way that negatively impacts turnout.

Modern disenfranchisement happens through obfuscation and information scarcity. Whether the California government is disenfranchising voters out of malice or resource scarcity is immaterial. Our contention is that, in a state that prides itself on access to the ballot box and electoral reforms, voting should be easy. The current laws and norms surrounding NPP voting result in a procedure that is anything but.

Your voice matters for Super Tuesday. This is your election as much as anyone’s.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the California primary would take place “next month,” as in April. The primary takes place in March. The Daily regrets this error.

Ben Polsky is a master’s student in international policy studies at Stanford.
Mike Norton is a law student at Stanford Law School and holds a Ph.D. in politics from the University of Oxford.

Contact Ben Polsky at bpolsky ‘at’ stanford.edu and Mike Norton at mtnorton ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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