Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

California's Election Laws, Secretary of State Wage War on Term 'Independent'

Created: 18 May, 2016
Updated: 21 November, 2022
3 min read

California election laws and election officials seem determined to stamp out the word "independent." The state seems eager to suppress that word, on voter registration forms, on ballots, and even in the Official Statewide Voter Guide.

California is one of the 30 states in which the voter registration form asks voters to choose a party, or to choose independent status. But the California form refuses to use the word "independent." Instead, the form asks voters if they wish to choose a "political party preference." The "NO" box says, "No, I do not want to choose a political party preference." The form never affirmatively asks voters if they are independent voters.

In most states, independent candidates who get on the ballot have the word "independent" or "independent candidate" next to their names on the ballot. California formerly was one of those states, and California still lets independent presidential candidates have the ballot label "independent" on the ballot. But when California adopted Proposition 14 (which implemented the top-two primary) in 2010, that law deprived the ability of independent candidates to be "independent" on the ballot. Instead, whether on the June primary ballot or the November ballot, their party label is "Party preference: none." This is a very unappealing label.

Independent candidates have filed lawsuits to regain the use of the label "independent," but have not won those cases.

After the independent candidates who wanted to use the word "independent" on the ballot lost on court on that issue, it occurred to them to create a party named the "Independent Party." California ballots for Congress and partisan state office print party labels on the ballot for members of qualified parties. These labels do not include the word "party." So, a registered Republican running for Congress or partisan state office in California has "Party preference: Republican" on the ballot, whether on the June ballot or the November ballot.

If there was a ballot-qualified Independent Party, then a member of that party could have "Party preference: Independent" on the ballot. In this way, if the Independent Party could have got on the ballot, then independent candidates could simply join the Independent Party and thus get their preferred label on the ballot next to their names. The plan was that the Independent Party would have no platform, except to say that the Independent Party was there to help independent candidates.

But the secretary of state said that no party is permitted to be named "Independent Party." He said this even though eleven other states have ballot-qualified parties named "Independent Party," either currently or in the recent past. There is no California law saying no party may be named "Independent Party."

When the Independent Party sued to force the secretary of state to let the Independent Party try to qualify for the ballot, the judge ruled against the Independent Party and said there "might" be confusion. The state presented no evidence that the existence of an Independent Party would confuse voters, and the Independent Party presented evidence that in the states with an Independent Party, no harm is done. It is not known if the Independent Party will appeal.

California lets candidates for U.S. Senate and statewide offices write a statement about themselves, and then prints this in the government-distributed Voter Guide. The government charges $25 per word, so not all candidates take advantage of this opportunity to educate voters about themselves.

One candidate in the 2016 U.S. Senate race, Paul Merritt, did submit a statement for the Voter Guide. He described himself as "a registered independent voter." This was true; Merritt is a registered independent voter. But the secretary of state censored out that sentence, without even telling Merritt. Merritt only learned that statement had been deleted when he saw the Voter Guide.

One can only conclude from this that the state legislators who write the laws, and the secretary of state, who administers the election laws, are terrified of independent candidates and the power of the word "independent."

Photo Source: LA Times