CA120: Confusion lurks in the California primary

Voters casting ballots in Ventura County during an earlier election. (Photo: Joseph Sohm, Shutterstock)

In recent years, California has seen two major shifts in its voter file.

The largest has been the rise in the number of Permanent Absentee Voters, or PAVs.  Once limited to the older and more conservative portion of the electorate, absentee voting is quickly becoming the preferred voting method of voters from all demographics. A massive two-thirds of the most recent voter surge signed up to get their ballots in the mail.

The challenge for many voters, perhaps tens of thousands of them, will come when they open their absentee ballot the weekend before the election, excited about voting, and only then realize that they have the wrong ballot.

The second major shift is the increase in “No Party Preference,” or NPP voters, who are primarily young and Latino voters who would traditionally be a part of the Democratic coalition.  In California, these voters can register free of partisan labels, yet still vote for all the same Democratic and Republican candidates as everyone else.

Until now.CA120_header4

As we enter the June primary, we have an electorate that has been seen in polling to be more energized and with a desire to vote more commonly in general elections.  The last time we had anything close to this kind of engagement was during the 2008 presidential primary.

During the intervening eight years since that primary contest, we have seen a 35% growth in NPP registrations and an 88% spike in the number of PAVs.  In total, the population of non-partisan voters who get their ballots by mail has nearly tripled.Graphic

A recent CA120 survey of these NPP and PAV voters reported findings that should create great concerns for election administrators and political campaigns.

The study found that 88% of these voters are interested in voting in the upcoming election. Of those voters, two-thirds are interested in voting in the Democratic primary, while more than 17% are planning on re-registering to vote Republican.

As an Independent voter, you are allowed to vote in the Democratic contest, but to vote in the Republican contest you must re-register. Are you planning to:

Vote in the Democratic Primary


Re-Register Republican to vote in Republican Primary


Not vote in either of the two major party Presidential Primaries

N=988 Responses

One challenge heading into June is that these voters have grown accustomed to seeing all candidates on their ballot with the new open primary. While insiders might understand the subtleties of the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries, our past experience shows that the average voter has not done well adapting to seemingly simple changes in election procedures.

Republican presidential campaigns are already working aggressively to target these voters for re-registration so they can vote in their primary.  The CA120 survey suggests that as many as 725,000 voters might be interested in making that switch. But since Jan. 1, only 34,000 have done so. These voters have until May 23 to change their registration and get a Republican ballot.

On the Democratic side, things are seemingly easier, but that might not mean that things will go smoothly.

Over four million postcards like this one were sent by county registrars to NPP and PAV voters giving them an option to request what officials call a “crossover” ballot, and these must be done by written form. (Some counties appear to be allowing email applications, however the secretary of state’s office says these are disallowed).

Yet, according to the survey, it appears the vast majority of these voters who intend to vote in the Democratic primary are still not clued in to how the process works.

Which statement best explains how independent voters can vote in the Democratic Presidential Primary?
An independent voter must request the Democratic ballot from the County 42.7%
Democratic candidates will be on the ballot without taking any extra steps. 37.1%
I am not sure 20.2%

N=668 – includes only respondents who selected “Vote in the Democratic Primary” in prior question.

And this need to request the Democratic ballot is not just a fact missed by low-information voters.  We broke out voters who were in the highest turnout bracket, and had voted in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential primaries, and even among those, only 40% could correctly identify the process for getting a partisan crossover ballot.

Without requesting a Democratic ballot in time, these voters are going to be mailed a non-partisan ballot with no presidential section at all.  This could be a recipe for chaos as NPP voters, eligible and interested in voting in the primary, start looking through their ballots and find no Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.

How big of a problem could this be?

If this election was more like 2008 or 2012, with mediocre interest among most independent voters, the number of absentees needing a partisan ballot would be relatively low.  During those election cycles, 40% of NPP voters who turned out had crossed over to participate in the partisan primary.  Without any higher participation this year, that would be at least 400,000 voters statewide needing to get a partisan ballot.  If turnout is significantly higher, as many are expecting, this number could skyrocket to a million or more.

A voter who wants to stay NPP and vote in the Democratic Primary would have to print out and mail in a request for a partisan ballot by May 31.

For voters who intend to participate in the Democratic or Republican presidential primaries — and who get a June ballot without the presidential candidates on them — there are remedies.

Voters who are interested in voting Republican and are willing to declare a party affiliation to do so, can change party registration up until May 23.  If they establish that they are PAV, they would get a new replacement ballot in the mail automatically.

An NPP could also re-register Democratic by that time and would also automatically receive a ballot with the presidential candidates on it.

A voter who wants to stay NPP and vote in the Democratic Primary would have to print out and mail in a request for a partisan ballot by May 31.  This request would invalidate the ballot they currently have, put them in a waiting game to get their replacement, and then have a rush to mail it back postmarked by Election Day.

Even state lawmakers should expect the conspiracy theorists to start flinging accusations at them for the confusion.

The other option is for the voter to go to the polls and vote a provisional Democratic ballot.  The provisional ballot would count, provided that the voter has not already completed and mailed in their non-partisan ballot.

County registrars, already slammed with the June Primary, an expected surge in turnout and even signature verification for the November ballot measures, could find themselves inundated with angry and confused voters asking where their presidential candidates are.

Even state lawmakers should expect the conspiracy theorists to start flinging accusations at them for the confusion.

And the challenge for many voters, perhaps tens of thousands of them, will come when they open their absentee ballot the weekend before the election, excited about voting, and only then realize that they have the wrong ballot.  And for many of them, a trip to the polling location on election day won’t be an easy option.

In the coming days we will begin tracking how many crossover applications and re-registrations to the Republican Party have been received in advance of the primary.

One preliminary count from 10 days ago showed that out of nearly 400,000 voters in LA County, 3,300 had registered Republican and 25,000 had requested crossover Democratic ballots.  Yet, our survey suggests that 55,000 of these voters would be interested in re-registering Republican and another 200,000 are interested in voting in the Democratic contest.

But with the most of the mail-in ballots being prepared by counties last weekend, and deadlines for re-registration and crossover application looming, we have to wonder how many will fail to realize it in time.

Ed’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, which explores 2016 election issues in California. He is vice president of Political Data Inc., and owner of Redistricting Partners, a bipartisan political strategy and research company. 

  • Richard Winger

    This is a useful and good article, but it would be better if it didn’t refer to California as having an open primary. “Open primary” has been defined for over 100 years as a system in which, on primary day, any voter can choose any party’s primary ballot…but each party has its own nominees and its own primary ballot.

    By contrast, in California (except for president) there are no party nominees and no party ballots. We have a top-two system, along with Washington state. 19 other states have open primaries. It is not good writing to use the same term to refer to two different things.

  • Vince Marmolejo

    Excellent blog post – I was fascinated by
    the insight – Does anyone know where I might acquire a blank MO DWC
    WC-G-11 example to fill in ?

    • alwaysthink

      CA Sec of State office, just use google

    • Ava Cueto

      Hi Vince Marmolejo . my partner saw a blank OPM OF-306 version at this place

    • Rosa


  • Sierra Salin

    This article would be much clearer if it stated at the beginning that this is only an isue for folks which are voting by mail. Anyone planning to vote in person need only ask for a provisional ballot. Also, lots of folks voting by mail, can easily go to their polling place and exchange the mail in for a provisional. why not start with clear information which is easy to find?

    • shaun h

      Provisional ballots are not always counted.

    • Lyme Stats

      This isn’t true two different recently trained poll workers have been trying to get the word out online that the counties are training the poll workers to NOT give out the right ballots. Everyone should vote early – here is a great video on how to do it:

    • Rosa


  • Quietman

    I registered from NPP to Democrat on March 27 ( just before the March 31 deadline for voting in the June 7, 2016 Presidential primary). At the same time I requested to vote-by-mail. On-line with the CA voter registration it shows that I am now indeed registered as a Democrat. Here is the problem, I just received my LA County vote-by-mail ballot and it is a NPP ballot. So what are my options. I have been on hold for an hour on the call in number. I also sent an email to the LA County Voter Registrar, good luck with that. I’m feeling the Burn.

    • Lyme Stats

      You need to go into the registration office. Anyone who registers as NPP must also register for a Crossover Ballot (for the Democrat Ballot). Otherwise you will not get to vote for president. The cut off time is May 23 so you have time to go into the registration office. This is a great video to help:

    • Rosa


  • shaun h

    If you want to vote in the Democratic Primary, make it simple and easy on yourself. Register as a DEMOCRAT on or before May 23 (Request PAV status) and VOTE.

    That way you don’t have to worry about the Party or legislature changing the rules at the last minute and you don’t have to worry about getting the wrong ballot.

    THINK people.

    you can always reregister after the primary if you don’t want to be registered as a democrat.

  • Lyme Stats

    The counties are training poll workers incorrectly. Please follow the instructions of this video if you want your vote to count!

  • Rosa


  • Quietman

    I am registered as a Democrat. The problem is that LA County sent me a NPP ballot and I have no confidence that they are capable or motivated to correct the issue!

  • Glabella Philtrum

    California voters, you need to get this handled THIS WEEK as the deadline to reregister or change party is May 23rd.

Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: