Two political activists launched an April Fool's Day-themed campaign targeting the American Independent Party, claiming most of its members joined without knowing California's third-largest political party was founded by proponents of racial segregation.
Mark Vargas, a real estate development consultant and Democratic appointee on the California Coastal Commission, heads the "AIPrl Fooled" campaign with Paul Mitchell, an executive of a business that sells voter and demographic data to campaigns.
"People just assume they see the word 'independent' and they say, 'That's right, I'm independent,' then click the box on American Independent Party," Vargas said. "I want to let people know what it is that the AIP stands for and explain to them that they may have made a mistake."
The AIP party in California is the fastest-growing in the state. It has 472,833 members, and has nearly doubled since 2004. One-quarter of its members are in Los Angeles County.
Vargas said he e-mailed more than 220,000 AIP voters in California Tuesday after obtaining their addresses from the Secretary of State's office.
The e-mail asks AIP members if they intended to join that or any political party. The message links to AIP's political platform, to the recipients' county Registrar of Voter office where they can check their party affiliation, and to the Secretary of State's website where they may change their voter registration.
Vargas said he wanted AIP members to understand the group's origins in the 1968 third-party presidential candidacy of then-Alabama Governor George Wallace and the pro-segregation policies that had been disavowed by the Democratic Party.
AIP National Chairman Markham Robinson, who sells financial software in Vacaville, Calif., doesn't argue the party's origins. But he says the party has moved far from those roots. Its 2008 presidential nominee was Alan Keyes, who is African-American. Its 2012 vice presidential nominee was Robert Ornelas, a Native American.
"Some segregationist party, we are, huh?" Robinson said in a phone interview.
He describes today's AIP party as conservative, Christian, opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, and also opposed to the widespread federal ownership of land in California and other states.
Vargas provided a list of dozens of elected officials who were listed with county registrars as holding AIP party membership.
Among them is Azusa City Councilman Uriel Macias, a Naval Reserve officer who recently returned from deployment in Afghanistan. Macias said he did not think he was a member of the AIP, because as a nonpartisan officeholder, he meant to register without declaring a party preference.
"It's not about partisan politics at the local level, so you should remain nonpartisan," Macias said. "I'm going to go to the county registrar website and look at my registration and if it is under that party, I'm going to correct it to be nonpartisan."
A check with the Los Angeles County Registrar confirms he is registered as an AIP member.
The No Party Preference segment of the voting public (referred to in past years as "decline to state" or nonpartisan or independent) has been growing quickly in numbers and influence while affiliation with the still-dominant Democratic and Republican parties is falling.