CA120: Myth of the ‘independents’

A voters hows his badge of independence. (Photo: Joe Belanger, via Shutterstock)

Donald Trump is not just the Republican presidential nominee in California.

If you got your ballot in the mail, you might have noticed one little oddity:  Under Donald Trump’s name you’ll find not only his Republican Party, but also the little known American Independent Party (AIP).

Despite Trump’s warnings last week, there is no evidence that American elections are rigged.

But, with regards to the AIP, they are definitely confusing and worth a deeper look.CA120_header3

In California’s June primary election, more than 130,000 voters who registered with the obscure AIP cast ballots, as did another 36,000 no-party-preference voters who requested an AIP ballot.

However, Donald Trump, the AIP’s eventual nominee in California, wasn’t even on the ballot.

In the actual election, over 125,000 of these votes were left blank or had write-ins of non-qualified candidates.  The winning candidate only got 5% and the total votes for all AIP presidential candidates was less than a quarter of those who voted within that party primary.

2016 American Independent Party Primary Election Results

Candidate Votes Percent
Wiley Drake 5,476 3%
Arthur Harris 7,216 4%
James Hedges 4,462 3%
Thomas Hoefling 4,345 3%
J.R. Myers 5,475 3%
Robert Ornelas 7,164 4%
Alan Spears 8,103 5%
Left Blank or Write In 127,247 75%

This lack of a meaningful result for any of the actual AIP candidates might have contributed to how easily the party ditched their primary election results and declared Donald Trump to be their nominee.

Without any reported election results for non-qualified write-in candidates, there was no way for the AIP or the secretary of state to determine who might have actually been the real preferred choice of these voters. So, when the AIP chairman claimed that a couple rural county officials had told him most write-ins were for Trump, he was able to use this as a way to get Trump on the ballot as their nominee.

However, to really answer this question of who the AIP write-ins were for, CA120 conducted its own poll of voters who cast ballots in the AIP primary election.

This online poll of AIP voters – sent to voters in the June primary with emails on the Political Data voterfile — asked AIP members about their choices for president, if they wrote in a candidate and why they supported the AIP to begin with.

Of respondents, over 85% said they didn’t vote for any of their presidential candidates or that they wrote in an alternative.

Who among the American Independent Party presidential candidates did you vote for? (N=629)

Wiley Drake 1.1%
Arthur Harris 1.2%
James Hedges 1.2%
Thomas Hoefling 2.0%
J.R. Myers 1.1%
Robert Ornelas 2.5%
Alan Spears 4.7%
Write in / Didn’t vote 86.2%

Looking specifically at these voters, the majority of them did not know they were members of the American Independent Party and didn’t want to be in the AIP.

More than 80% of these said they had intended to be “independent” voters, meaning they had no party preference, while 20% said they wanted to be a Democrat or Republican.

When asked why they had an AIP registration, 77% claimed it was because they had filled out the form incorrectly.

As for the nomination of Donald Trump, the polling shows that the actual choice of AIP members was not Trump, as claimed by AIP leadership, but Democrat Bernie Sanders.

Did Bernie Sanders want to be on the California ballot as a nominee of the AIP?  Definitely not.

The pie chart below shows the names that people said they wrote in on their ballot.

The actual write-in vote will never be known, however, because the secretary of state said counties cannot release write-in numbers for candidates that were not qualified as write-in candidates.

Those ballots were just invalidated for the presidential contest, which means they were treated as blanks.

And yes, some people liked Mickey Mouse as a candidate.

Who among the American Independent Party presidential candidates did you vote for? Choices among “write-in.”

As the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year, nearly 3 in 4 voters who are in the AIP believe they are actually “independent” voters, meaning that they believe they have no party affiliation.

In a failing of the state’s election laws, there isn’t actually an “independent” option when voters register – those who don’t want to be in a political party need to register as “no party preference.”  The only place it says “independent” is smack dab in the middle of the AIP name.

Among the AIP registered voters polled by the LA Times, only 3.8% could even identify the AIP as their party.  More voters mistakenly thought they were registered as Democrats or Republicans.  In raw count, of the 500 voters polled by the LA Times, only 19 could name the AIP as their registered political party.

Imagine in a different context, a misleading food label for a food where out of 100 people who bought it, 96 got home and said “wait, I didn’t’ mean to buy this.”  We consider that labeling fraudulent.  Yet, this is exactly what is happening with the AIP, and nothing significant has been done.

Prior to this election cycle, the evidence against the AIP was merely speculative.

Campaigns and consultants — and anyone who has done a voter registration drive — knew that many voters who intend to register as independent have incorrectly selected the AIP.  But this was all anecdotal.

Earlier this year, a suit was brought by a group calling itself the “Independent Party,” but their claim to a spot on the ballot was rejected because their name was too similar to that of the AIP.

Yet, using the same logic, the AIP is, as we can now see, too similar to the common use of the term “independent” in our culture.

In this case, the “Independent Party” had a freedom of speech, but that was seen as secondary to the need for Californians to have an election system that doesn’t confuse voters and have them registered for the wrong party. That’s an ironic finding, to be sure, given the amount of documented confusion around the AIP registrants.

In another lawsuit this year, one of these AIP voters who wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders actually demanded a Democratic provisional ballot at the polls, even after being told that it wouldn’t be counted.

She then marched to the county courthouse and got a judge to force the registrar to invalidate her AIP registration and to allow her to vote as an Independent with a crossover Democratic ballot.

This effort by one voter earned the voter congratulations from the judge, and even support from the county registrar who claims to have seen more voters in this same position.  But she still represents just one of the many voters who had their voter intent infringed in this primary.

What’s next for the AIP is likely in the hands of the Legislature, governor and the secretary of state. The issue is one of the political party’s freedom of speech, weighed against the need for an election system that respects the intent of voters when they register.

With more than a half-million voters mistakenly in the party, and thousands more accidentally joining every week, it does seem like it is time for action

Ed’s Note: Paul Mitchell, the creator of the CA120 column and a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is vice president of Political Data Inc., and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy and research company. 

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