The movement toward the middle: CA’s growing decline-to-state voters

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

For decades, people registering to vote have been served the same three dishes at the buffet of party affiliations.

It’s either Democrat, Republican, or some fringe third party that never comes close to having real political clout. Frustrated voters in California are turning their noses and throwing the menu away entirely by checking the decline-to-state option when registering,.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is that they are doing it in record numbers. 

As of April 6, more than one fifth of voting registrants claim no party preference. The total of decline-to-state registrants has grown steadily over the last 15 years – so steadily, in fact, that there are now more than twice as many independents as there were in 1996. 

“I think part of it is people are tired of the partisan politics,” said Rachel Michelin, Executive Director/CEO of the nonpartisan California Women Lead. 

“I really think people see our state in bad shape right now with the budget, the gridlock, the control that certain groups have over the legislature – people like the independent voice. I think we’ll see that number increase even more after the June primary,” she said.

And as the June 5th primary comes closer, these independent voters will wield more power than ever. The “top two” primary will see the top two vote getters from congressional, legislative and statewide races go forward, and voters don’t need a party affiliation to pick the nominee.

Dan Schnur, Director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, points to California’s new “top two” primary format as reasoning behind some of the growth in independents, but also notes that the increase precedes it. 

“Even before the top two primary became the law in California, we were seeing explosive growth in the number of independent or decline-to-state voters – voters who consciously register to vote, but equally consciously decide not to register with any of the major parties,” Schnur said.

 “But now that the primary system allows these independents to weigh in however they like, the incentive for registered Republicans or Democrats to reregister as an independent is even greater than ever.”

Michelin agrees that the rise in decline-to-state voters will bring change, and she’s hoping it will be positive. 

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said. “I think when you talk to regular people, they like the idea of the independent candidate. The question is will the money be there, if they’re going to run for state legislature. And if they get elected, what kind of support will they have?”

Regardless of whether the money follows, it’s clear that the support is growing.

“Not too many parties appeal to me directly. I’m too far right for Democrats, and too liberal for Republicans,” said Hugo Guzman, a California college student and one of the growing crop of disgruntled decline-to-staters. 

“It’s the fact that we just don’t know how to properly spend our money. There would have to be radical change within the party philosophies for me to pick something,” he said.

“It’s easy to be disillusioned,” said Arpi Isayan, another California college student and declared independent.. 

Isayan believes her demographic is “less of a conformist generation” and is part of the reason behind the swell in decline-to-state voters. “We’re taking time to think about it, voting freely without a specified party.” Whether she’ll remain an independent voter for the long haul is up in the air. “I haven’t made up my mind yet,” she said. 

But those that think they may be registered as an independent may want to double check to make sure they are not actually registered for the American Independent Party, a third party against taxes, immigration, and gay marriage. 

Despite its niche status, the American Independent Party makes up almost 2.5 percent of California registrants, far above the Green  and Libertarian parties, which don’t even crack a full percent. 

Sometimes it’s just an honest mistake. The most famous example of this happened in 2008 when Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s wife accidentally registered as an American Independent, thinking she was choosing the far more benign independent status. 

As the numbers of independent voters grow and support for the parties decreases, Schnur sees the dividends going to the electorate. 

“The biggest beneficiaries are not going to be candidates of any party; it’s going to be voters who represent the center of the great political debate in California.”


Matthew Grant Anson

All stories by: Matthew Grant Anson