Saturday, January 26, 2008

When party votes cancel each other out, that leaves nonpartisans

by Chuck Thomas Saturday, January 26, 2008

We can only imagine what it must have been like, decades ago, when the California secretary of state — whose office is in charge of elections — first discussed this phenomenon with the Democratic and Republican leaders of the state Legislature.

State: "We have encountered a new problem in printing the ballots. There are a lot of people registering to vote who refuse to identify themselves as either Democrats or Republicans."

Demo: "Is that legal?"

State: "Yes, the courts say it's legal."

Rep: "They're neither Republican nor Democrat, and they still expect us to let them vote?"

State: "Yes. If they meet the other requirements — residency and age and the like — they're entitled to vote. Our problem is how to identify them on the ballot."

Demo: "If they're neither Democrat nor Republican, they must be idiots."

Rep: "Or illiterate. Do we have to let illiterates vote?"

State: "I'm afraid so. The U.S. Supreme Court has banned literacy tests for voters. The logical thing to call them is independent,' but that would just cause confusion, because there's now an American Independent party that has qualified for the ballot."

Rep: "A whole new party? Can they do that?"

State: "Yes, and that's not the only one. There's also a Green Party, a Libertarian Party and a Peace and Freedom Party."

Demo: "Four new parties? Really?"

State: "Yes, making a total of six. Only in California. And even with a choice of six parties, there are still some voters who refuse to be identified with any party."

Demo: "Can't we just label them weirdos'?"

State: "I'm afraid the courts would find that pejorative."

Rep: "How about undecided'?"

State: "But they're not undecided. They have decided they don't want to be identified with any political party."

Rep: "With independent' out, why don't we call them nonpartisan'? That's accurate."

Demo: "But it makes them sound too rational, the snobs."

Rep: "How about something that labels them for the weasels they really are? Since they're wimping out on picking a party, let's list them as decline to state.' "

State: "The courts shouldn't object to that."

Which is a rather fanciful explanation of how people like me got the ballot designation "decline to state" — with its implication that we have some deep, dark political secret that we're trying to hide. All we're trying to do, really, is opt out of the whole rat race of partisan politics. When it comes to politics, we're simply not party animals.

So in the national presidential primary Feb. 5, we won't be agonizing over whether to vote for John McCain or Mitt Romney or anyone else on the Republican ticket. The Republicans won't allow decline-to-state voters to participate in the party primary. It is, after all, their primary and we aren't one of them.

However, the Democrats will let us agonize over whether to vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, by asking for a Democratic Party ballot at the polls. (Decline-to-state voters can also request an American Independent Party ballot.)

For whatever reason, Ventura County is more tolerant of nonpartisan voters than the state of California is. In county election material, we're not listed as "decline to state" — with all its implications of hiding in the closet — but as what we really are, "nonpartisan."

Whether or not we can vote for some candidates in the primary election, we generic, unbranded voters have the consolation of knowing that we will decide the final outcome — the winner of the presidential Super Bowl on Nov. 4.

Says who?

Says every voting survey I've seen in recent elections. According to those statistics, more and more voters — old and new — aren't signing up as Democrats nor Republicans, but in some other party or as decline to state.

Ventura County is typical of the country politically: Just fewer than 40 percent of the registered voters are Democrats and just fewer than 40 percent are Republicans. So the party faithful cancel out each other's votes — leaving the election to be decided by which party attracts the most votes from among the remaining 20 percent.

Meanwhile, the party primaries consist mainly of bickering over who is the most avid Republican and who is the most avid Democrat. Somehow overlooking the fact that, in order to be elected, the candidates from both major parties will have to attract votes from us political mongrels — whatever we're called.

— Chuck Thomas is a Star columnist whose column appears on the Opinion pages each Saturday. His e-mail address is

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