Independents Can Vote for Democrats, but Not Republicans, in California Primary

A growing number of Californians are opting out of political parties. KPCC's special correspondent Kitty Felde examines what happens to these "decline to state" voters in February's presidential primary.

Kitty Felde: The Democratic Party is shrinking in California, down from 46 percent of registered voters in 1999 to 42.5 percent today. The news isn't any better for Republicans, who've lost 370,000 GOP members in just the last two years.

The fastest growing group of voters in California doesn't belong to a party at all. Nearly one in five checks the box marked "decline to state."

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: They may well outnumber both of the parties in just 20 years.

Felde: At last month's state GOP convention, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger urged his party not to dismiss these independently minded voters.

Schwarzenegger: So who are these people? According to the Public Policy Institute, 70 percent of independents own their own homes. Most are graduates with incomes of more than $60,000. They are younger and more likely to be employed than members of either major party.

Felde: And, Schwarzenegger pointed out, these were the voters who put him in the governor's office. Schwarzenegger urged the party to change state GOP rules and allow "decline to state" voters to request a Republican ballot for the February primary.

Schwarzenegger: The Democrats have already made it clear that they welcome independents to their primary. I think that we should welcome them as well. (applause) Research shows that the party you vote for in the primary is the party you vote for in the general election.

Felde: But despite the applause from the lunchtime audience, the proposal went nowhere.

Ron Nehring: We could have taken that up at this convention, but no one proposed the change. Which I was actually surprised by.

Felde: Ron Nehring is Chair of the California Republican party. He suggested the Governor was being disingenuous.

Nehring: We had a deadline prior to the convention to submit any rules changes on that. Absolutely nobody in the party did. I was expecting that that would happen and I had planned to hold town halls across the state to discuss that particular change. But no one introduced the change.
Felde: Not even the governor?
Nehring: Nobody introduced the change.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe: I don't think he would have won had he introduced that and that would be politically dangerous.

Felde: Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at USC, says there's a group within the state GOP that's more interested in controlling the agenda than in winning elections.

Bebitch Jeffe: If independent voters came to the Republican primary, it could challenge the Republican Party base, the conservative right. And that base's control of the Republican Party. And the base didn't want to risk losing that control.

Felde: That's what happened in 2000, according to Cal State Fullerton political science professor Raphe Sonenshein. New Hampshire allowed voters of all parties to cast ballots for whichever candidate they wanted.

Raphe Sonenshein: 40 percent of the votes were cast by independents. McCain got over 60 percent of the votes of independents.

Felde: McCain won New Hampshire, but lost in other states that allowed only Republicans to cast ballots in the Republican primary.

Sonenshein: The lesson is that this led into the Bush presidency, which very much followed the party base model: We don't need independents, we don't need Democrats. And it reshaped the Republican Party for years to come around that model which has now been picked up by the California Republican party with Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the role of John McCain in 2000.

Felde: But unaffiliated voters in California today are different from those in New Hampshire in 2000. Pollster Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, says at present, independents aren't very enthusiastic about the GOP.

Mark DiCamillo: If you look at voters who are "decline to state" voters in California, and you ask them if they would choose to vote in a Democratic primary or in a Republican primary, if they had the choice, about three and a half, four times as many say they would choose to vote in a Democratic primary as would vote in a Republican primary.

Felde: DiCamillo says even if "decline to states" had the option of voting in the upcoming GOP primary, their impact on the actual vote itself would be fairly minimal.