Sanders supporters argue that California is confusing voters

Two attorneys are suing California voting officials, arguing that millions of independent voters in California are disenfranchised by confusion ballot procedures.

Mike Blake/Reuters
US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addressed the crowd during a rally in Vista, Calif. on May 22, 2016.

Voting registration for California’s independent voters should be extended from Monday until the day of the state’s primary election on June 7, argues a group of Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters in a lawsuit. 

In a suit filed Friday against Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Alameda County and San Francisco County election officials, attorneys William Simpich and Stephen Jaffe argue that independent California voters are essentially being disenfranchised by complicated voting procedures. 

There’s mass confusion,” Mr. Simpich tells the Los Angeles Times. “This is a situation that really shouts for some uniformity.” 

Simpich and Mr. Jaffe represent individual voters and groups – such as the Voting Rights Defense Project – who support Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in asking for a number of voting reforms in the sunshine state.  

“The application to vote by mail procedure makes it very confusing if you’re a 'no party preference' voter to get your ballot,” Simpich tells 89.3 KPCC. “We want to see voters obviously turn out in as large numbers as possible. We think, especially with independent voters, it’s going to mean more votes for Bernie.” 

The Democratic Party has an open primary in the state of California, meaning that voters don’t have to be registered Democrats to cast a vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. But to participate in California’s presidential primary, voters with no party preference who vote by mail have to request a ballot for the party whose primary in which they want to vote – otherwise they will be sent a “non-partisan” ballot that does not include presidential candidates. And once voters mail in a ballot – whether it be the correct one or not – they are unable to correct their mistake and vote again.

“The Democratic (primary) was sold to voters as an open primary, but it hasn’t been as open as everybody said,” Paul Mitchell, co-founder of the Los Angeles voter analytics firm Political Data Inc and not affiliated with the lawsuit, tells The San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s more like a closed primary with an option for people to get into it.”

Along with the deadline extension, the lawsuit asks that independent voters be allowed to write in their candidate of choice if they receive the wrong form. And if independent voters already submitted the wrong, blank, form by mistake, they should be allowed the chance to re-vote. Outreach efforts in all 58 counties should improve, argue Simpich and Jaffe, so independent voters understand the state’s Democratic primary is open, but with stipulations. 

Mr. Mitchell agrees with the lawsuit’s basic argument because although independent voters are allowed to participate in the Democratic primary, the rules are unclear. The number of independent voters who vote by mail in California could be as many as 2.1 million, suggests Mitchell. 

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research think tank, the number of independent voters in the state has increased since 2011. Of the 17.7 million registered voters in California, 23.6 percent identified as independents in 2015, compared to the 28 percent that are Republicans and the 43.2 percent that are Democrats.

Such changes to the state's presidential primary process would almost certainly give Sanders’s campaign a boost. As The Monitor’s Peter Grier explains, party allegiance is a central difference between Clinton and Sanders supporters:

“Clinton’s supporters are far more likely to be registered Democrats. She’s won self-identified party members in the vast majority of states contested so far. That makes sense – she’s one of them. She’s been a party stalwart for a generation.

Sanders supporters are far more likely to be Democratic-leaning independents. This is a good-size chunk of the electorate. About one-third of US voters identify as independent, and one-third of them are really Democrats who just don’t like labels. Sanders has dominated with these voters virtually everywhere.” 

In fact, Sanders is one of these voters himself. He has run for office as a political independent for years, only becoming a Democrat for the purpose of running for president. Exit polling data indicates that Sanders’ margin increases with the density of independent voters. 

“As we’ve noted before, Sanders has been as successful as he’s been in part because of voters just like him: People that vote Democratic but who identify themselves as independents when asked by exit pollsters,” writes The Washington Post’s Philip Bump. 

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