(graphic: LA County Registrar)
Independent voters have long been the Plain Jane of the high school that is American politics. Essentially invisible to the major parties (except when a rowdy Texan crashed the party in 1992), voters with No Party Preference (NPP), as they are known in California, always had to ask permission to vote with the cool kids at their primaries.
But a recent procedural change has transformed the fastest growing group of California voters, with 3.7 million registered for this primary (up one percent from 2010), from wallflower to belle of the ball.
Prior to 2010, a voter not registered with either the Democratic or Republican parties could request a ballot for either party at a statewide primary and vote accordingly, but he/she would be limited to voting only for that party’s candidates in addition to any ballot measures.
Since California adopted what is known as the Top Two Primary, however, the partisan voting barriers have been broken down, literally. Gone are the separate party ballots and voting booths. Now the top two vote-getting candidates, regardless of party affiliation, move on to the November ballot. The goal is to empower the burgeoning number of independent voters, who now comprise more than one fifth of the Californias registered voters.
It also aims to cut down on partisan rancor as candidates would have to appeal to all voters and not just their bases during the primaries and could potentially wind up running against someone of their own party in November. When sharing overarching party ideologies, candidates would have to work to differentiate themselves in other, (presumably) more centrist ways.
Though the top two primary took effect in 2011, this it the first cycle where it applies to all legislative and state constitutional offices. As such, anyone walking into a polling place on Tuesday will get a ballot that looks very similar to one you’d get in November, except longer. Much longer. Every candidate running under any party banner will be vying for a little black dot.
Many voters, however, are not aware of this significant procedural change. Dean Logan, Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder, and his staff are doing their part to make sure the word is getting out.
“We have made a concerted effort to alert all voters about the Top Two Primary by including easy to find information in the Official Sample Ballot and online at www.lavote.net,” Logan said. “In addition, the Sample Ballot cover includes an alert tab that reads ‘All voters can now vote in the primary.’”
Predictably, there are plenty of questions about the new format. Many answers can be found at the above link provided by Logan, but here is a snapshot of the commonly cited new features of the Two Top that have been causing some confusion among voters, straight from the same link:
Whether or not this causes any spike in turnout for a non-presidential primary with the governor’s race all but a lengthy formality leading to Jerry Brown’s second consecutive term (third overall) remains to be seen. It’s not likely as most pundits are predicting turnout below the prior record of 28 percent in a non-presidential primary, set in 2008.
However, it doesn’t matter if you’re the cool kid or the new kid, if you haven’t already dropped your ballot in mailbox, GO VOTE! Invite family and neighbors to join you because an engaged electorate is the prerequisite for a healthy democracy.