Nonpartisan voters are a hot property this election season. Their votes could determine which party dominates Congress, and whether Democrats can solidify their hold on the State Legislature.
Almost a fourth of all voters in California are registered as nonpartisan — more than ever before. They could be the deciding factor in about 20 state and Congressional races in California.
Take, for example, the 65th Assembly District in Orange County. It includes Fullerton and the cities of La Palma, Buena Park, Cypress, West Anaheim and a small slice of Garden Grove.
Mark Liwanag, who lives in the district, has been registered as a nonpartisan voter since he first took the oath of citizenship ten years ago. He came here 17 years ago from the Philippines to work as a nurse.
In the 65th District, Democrats make up 37 percent of the voters, and Republicans nearly match that number. Neither party has enough to win on its own. So the district's 23 percent of nonpartisan voters will provide the winning edge.
Officials in the campaigns of both candidates — Democratic Fullerton Mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva and Republican incumbent Assemblyman Chris Norby — say they are targeting nonpartisan voters.
“Quirk-Silva, in order to be competitive, will have to paint Chris Norby as a lockstep Republican," says Scott Lay, a Democratic-leaning political blogger. "Norby has to paint Quirk-Silva and her backers as traditional Democratic interest groups. He has to show that he has been independent."
This same sort of calculus is happening all over California because district lines were re-drawn, creating six Assembly races, four state Senate races and ten Congressional seats where the incumbent does not have an automatic advantage.
A former GOP strategist, Allan Hoffenblum, publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book, which analyzes competitive races. “In every one of those districts, the nonpartisan voter, the NPP voter is a significant factor in determining who wins," he says.
NPP stands for No Party Preference, the new term that the state uses to refer to nonpartisan voters. The old term was "Decline to State," but that was replaced in 2010 with the more neutral term.
Who is the nonpartisan voter?
In some areas, especially those with large Asian-American and Latino populations, many new voters and newly naturalized citizens register as nonpartisan.
Asians are the fastest growing ethnic group in California and more than half are nonpartisan. Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside political science professor, says Asian voters also turn out at lower rates than other groups.
“This is a little surprising given the generally higher levels of education and income that you find for Asian-Americans," Ramakrishnan said. "We find that it’s these immigrant-related factors, that it takes people a while to get familiar with the U.S. system and also feel like they have a stake in the political system in order for them to get involved.”
And campaigns tend to ignore Asian-Americans. Ramakrishnan says they are the least-contacted group of voters.
In the 65th district, 22% of voting age adults are Asian-American. Liwanag says neither campaign has visited his home, or sent him information in a language other than English.
Another factor contributing to the growth of nonpartisan voters are those who are dropping party labels and declaring their independence.
“There are a lot of voters out there who are turned off by both parties, but for a lot of different reasons," Hoffenblum said.
Liwanag says even though he is not registered with either party, he tends to vote Democratic, mostly over immigration policy questions.
“A lot of times Republicans are blocking some of the ideas that Democrats want to do about immigration," Liwanag says. "So sometimes its more of a Democrat. But I’m nonpartisan, really. If Republicans are more on immigration, maybe I’ll go on the other side, right?"
And while nonpartisan voters outnumber Republicans in more than a dozen California election districts, they can't be considered the foundation of a third party because they represent a mix of voters. And nonpartisan voters often wait until just before the election to decide how to vote. That's Liwanag's plan:
"I still want to see more and hear more about them. I don’t want to be partisan, just to be fair."