Voting In California's Primary When You Have No Party Preference Gets Complicated
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We're now looking ahead to California, where early voting is underway ahead of the state's March 3 primary. It's the single biggest prize in the Democratic presidential primary. And a key group in the race are independent voters, who recently overtook Republicans as the second-largest voting bloc in California behind Democrats, of course. Jeremy Siegel from member station KQED reports that voting in the primary when you have no party preference can get complicated.
JEREMY SIEGEL, BYLINE: Flashback to 2016.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: An historical moment for the Democratic presumptive nominee - Clinton winning 56% of the vote in the Golden State.
SIEGEL: A big loss for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton in California - in part because independents didn't get Democratic ballots.
PAUL MITCHELL: This inability of nonpartisan voters to get the correct ballots significantly hampered Bernie in 2016.
SIEGEL: That's Paul Mitchell, vice president of the bipartisan number-crunching firm Political Data. He says Republicans and Democrats automatically got their ballots. But independents who were likely to vote for Sanders had to ask for a specific party ballot.
MITCHELL: So I think the Bernie folks are walking into California saying, like, we're not going to let that happen to us again.
SIEGEL: The big hurdle is educating those independent voters on how the process works.
ALEX PADILLA: No party preference voters do have the option for voting for a candidate for president. But they've got to pay attention.
SIEGEL: That's California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. He says parties set their own rules for whether independents can vote in their primaries. Republicans, for example, don't let them take part. Democrats do. But, Padilla says, it can get a bit tricky.
PADILLA: The voter has to request that Democratic ballot, especially if you're voting by mail. Let the county know in advance which ballot you prefer. Otherwise, the default ballot will be that non-partisan ballot.
SIEGEL: Translation - if you don't tell election officials which primary you want to vote in, you get a blank ballot. So for campaigns, it's all about getting the message out to independent voters about how to make sure they get the ballot they want. The Sanders campaign website, for example, has a page devoted to educating independents. Jane Kim is the campaign's California political director.
JANE KIM: And we want to make sure that every Californian is able to voice their vote and to make sure that they request a Democratic Party ballot.
SIEGEL: Another candidate working to win over independents is billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who opted out of some early contests to focus campaign efforts on California. Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs is a national campaign co-chair for Bloomberg.
MICHAEL TUBBS: Part of beating Donald Trump is to ensure that folks who are independent or have no party preference also are part of governing coalition. So we're starting that process now with the way we're campaigning.
SIEGEL: Whether either of the campaign's efforts to win independents will ultimately pan out is unclear. But political strategist and UC Berkeley lecturer Dan Schnur says it's important to keep in mind why voters register as independent in the first place.
DAN SCHNUR: What causes someone to reregister as a no party preference voter is not centrism or moderation. Rather, it's a dislike and a disdain for politics and politicians.
SIEGEL: So if campaigns want the independent vote, they'll need to channel that frustration and make sure independents actually get a party ballot. For NPR News, I'm Jeremy Siegel in San Francisco.
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