Who's Down With NPP? What to Know About No Party Preference Voting in California's Primary

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Voters cast their ballots at a Masonic Lodge on June 5, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

V

oters registered as "no party preference" (NPP) are the fastest growing part of the California electorate, coveted by candidates and campaigns. But when it comes to the March presidential primary, the Republican Party has shut the door on them.

So too have the Green and Peace and Freedom parties, all of whom only allow party members to participate in their primaries.

NPP voters will, however, be able to vote in the Democratic, Libertarian and American Independent Party primaries.

But there's a catch: If you plan to vote by mail, you need to let election officials know which ballot you want to receive. It's a bit complicated and confusing but you're in luck. Here are the steps you need to take.

How to Vote if You're NPP

If you're registered as NPP and are signed up to vote by mail, check your mailbox (the physical one), because you've probably received a postcard from your local county election office asking which party's ballot you want.

If you want to vote in the Democratic, Libertarian or American Independent Party primary by mail, you'll need to return that postcard with your selection. (If you don't, you'll get a "non-partisan ballot" with no presidential candidates listed.) If you lost your postcard, get in touch with your county elections office, which can help get you a new one in time to vote.

If you want to vote in one of those three primaries in person on Election Day, no problem — just show up to your polling place and ask a poll worker for one of those ballots.

If you want to vote in the Republican, Green and Peace and Freedom Party primaries, you'll need to re-register with that specific party.

"We encourage any voter who wants to be part of the process to nominate a Republican for president to register as a Republican," said Jessica Millan Patterson, chair of the California Republican Party.

"We strongly believe it is the right and the duty of the Republican Party to follow a process that ensures that Republicans choose who will represent our party at the nominating convention and who is elected to our county central committees — an essential role in the infrastructure of our party — and a process that takes place during the Republican primary election," Patterson added.

You can re-register online through Feb. 18. After that date, you have to do so in person at a polling place, any vote center or at your county elections office.

More questions? There's a website for that: howtovoteforpresident.sos.ca.gov 

A Growing Political Force

The number of California residents registered as NPP has been growing for years. In 2018, NPP overtook the Republican Party as the second-largest voting block in the state after Democrats.

As of Oct. 1, 2019, there were nearly 5.5 million residents registered as NPP in California, according to the Secretary of State's office. That marks 26.7% of registered voters, compared to 23.6% for Republicans and 44.1% for Democrats.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla attributes some of that growth to the state's open primary rules. Proposition 14, which voters passed in 2010, replaced traditional party primaries with open contests.

"Over the last several election cycles, Californians have quickly gotten used to this top-two vote-getter system," Padilla said. "Anybody can vote for anybody ... so your party registration hasn't really mattered. But it's not the case when it comes to voting for president."

Dan Schnur, a political strategist who teaches at UC Berkeley and Pepperdine University, attributes the rise in NPP voters to three other factors: a growing number of younger voters, a voter registration process that's made it easier to become NPP and, most importantly, an increasing rejection of the two major parties.

"Californians who want to participate in the political process, who want to be active voters and engaged citizens, simply see the two parties as unacceptable alternatives and are looking for another option," Schnur said. The notion that so-called "independent voters" tend to be more moderate, hovering between Democratic and Republican is a misconception, he added.

"What causes someone to refer to themselves as independent, what causes someone to re-register as a no party preference voter is not centrism or moderation," Schnur said. "Rather, it's a dislike and a disdain for politics and politicians."

That being said, the NPP block is still a hot get for Democratic contenders.

How Will NPP Voters Influence California's Primary?

Hard to say. But it will likely come down to two factors: how much Democratic contenders campaign for the NPP vote and whether the NPP block actually votes.

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"The block of no party preference voters ... really does represent a huge number of potential voters," Schnur said. "But you haven't seen as aggressive an outreach effort from most of the campaigns yet in that direction."

A couple of candidates have taken note, though.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the current Democratic front-runner in California, according to recent polls, is among the candidates making a concerted effort to win over the state's independents. His campaign website, for example, has a section alerting NPP voters to the fact that they can participate in the Democratic contest without re-registering as Democrats.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Sanders' California campaign director, Rafael Návar, called independents "a very important block of voters" who will be "supportive of the politics of the senator."

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Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another Democratic hopeful, who has opted not to participate in early state contests in order to focus campaign efforts on California and other Super Tuesday primaries, has also taken aim at the state's NPP block.

"Since no party preference is such a big preference for folks in the primary, we are absolutely reaching out to them, just as we are to Democrats, to ensure that they understand that their vote matters," said Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who is serving as Bloomberg's national campaign co-chair.

"Part of beating Donald Trump is ensuring that people who are independent or have no party preference also are part of our governing coalition," he added.

But the impact of NPP voters will ultimately come down to whether or not they cast a vote — and if history is any guide, independent turnout will lag, according to Paul Mitchell, vice president of the bipartisan voter data firm Political Data, Inc., who said his firm has a tally showing that less than 9% of NPP voters in California who plan to vote by mail have returned a postcard requesting a crossover ballot.

"So that means of the 4.2 million [NPP] voters in California, only 9% of them can vote in the presidential primary right now," Mitchell said, adding that historically, the NPP block is significantly more likely to vote by mail than in person.

Where Democratic campaigns could make a difference, Mitchell added, is educating NPP voters on how they can vote — and making sure they request a ballot.

"If you want to impact nonpartisan turnout, the best way you can do it is to get those nonpartisans that top-of-ticket race, and get them that Democratic ballot," he said.