Yes, the California Presidential Primaries Were Confusing... And Expensive

Created: 25 August, 2016
Updated: 21 November, 2022
6 min read

Several California voter registrars confirmed last week what the Independent Voter Project warned Secretary of State Alex Padilla about well ahead of the 2016 primary elections. As a result of insufficient voter education programs and ballot design problems there was mass voter confusion during the primary, resulting in -- among other things -- nearly a quarter of a million Senate votes being thrown out.

Nearly a Quarter of a Million Senate Votes Tossed

The report, titled “Ballot Design Issues Lead to Almost 250,000 Over-Votes in California, June 2016 US Senate Election” and conducted by YourVoterGuide, Inc., found that of the 8,548,301 ballots cast in the 34-candidate U.S. Senate race, 235,821 over-voted, meaning these voters cast more than one vote in the same race. As a result, all of these votes were invalidated.

It is important to note that in the event of over-voting, only the votes in that particular race are rendered void, not the entire ballot. Still, nearly a quarter of a million voters lost their say in the U.S. Senate primary elections because of confusion at the ballot box.

The report determined that the more complex the ballot design in a county, the more over-votes, whether it be a 1 or 2 page design with between 1-4 columns.

In looking at the percentage of voters over-voting, the California report found that the arguably least complex design, one column-one page, resulted in only 0.93% of voters over-voting. On the other hand, the arguably most complex design, two columns-two pages, resulted in 5.43% of the electorate over-voting. The multiple columns on multiple pages likely appeared as though they were for different races.

The State Was Warned Well Ahead of the Primaries

The registrars' report did not include the tens of thousands of complaints over the semi-closed presidential primaries. From provisional ballots to registration confusion to voters being sent the wrong presidential ballot, there are many California voters who were left frustrated before and after the June 7 primary elections.

“The secretary of state’s office was intimately aware of the potential for confusion and the need for a robust voter education program,” writes Steve Peace, founder and former co-chair of the Independent Voter Project. “I know this because I personally discussed the issue with both the secretary himself and his office. In addition, attorneys for the Independent Voter Project (IVP) presented a comprehensive and simple solution to Padilla and his office.”

The solution Peace refers to is a resolution that would have added a nonpartisan "public ballot" option for the 2016 presidential primaries. In short, the "public ballot" option would be for all voters who either could not vote in a party's presidential primary or did not want to, and would have given them the option to vote for whichever presidential candidate they wanted, regardless of party.

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READ MORE: California Resolution Would Provide for a Nonpartisan “Public Ballot” Option for Presidential Primaries

However, Padilla, California's chief elections administrator, claimed that he was not sure he could implement the resolution, and the state Assembly's Committee Elections and Redistricting Committee voted 3-2 against it in March.

The Independent Voter Project is currently co-sponsoring a new state constitutional amendment, ACA 13, with a bipartisan coalition of California lawmakers (including Assemblymembers Adam Gray (D-Merced) and Kristin Olsen (R-Riverbank), that would create a single nonpartisan presidential ballot so that all California voters have an opportunity to cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice, regardless of their political affiliation, in the taxpayer-funded presidential primaries.

A Heavy Price to the Taxpayers

The price tag for California's 2016 primaries, you ask? $96 million, according to Open Primaries.

IVN published an article in July on an Open Primaries report which found the total cost of primary elections nationwide to be approximately half a BILLION dollars in 2016. The figures are in line with research conducted by IVN on the cost of the 2012 presidential primaries:

“Open Primaries reports that over 26.3 million voters were locked out of closed primary elections nationwide — elections that serve the private purpose of selecting party candidates — because they were not registered to vote with the Republican or Democratic Party. Yet, closed primaries alone cost taxpayers an estimated $287 million.“When all partisan primary elections, including semi-closed and open primaries, are included in the estimate, the total cost for all private party primaries nationwide was estimated to be $427,300,168.79. And even this amount, the group believes, underestimates the complete financial impact of party primaries in the United States.”

In other words, nearly a quarter of the total price spent on primary elections in the United States was spent in California alone. To put that in perspective, the state that spent the second most on primaries was Maryland at nearly $27.9 million.

Open Primaries' Jeremy Gruber, who authored the study, told Jeff Powers in the latest episode of IVN's podcast that California spent so much because of factors such as the sheer size of California and the electorate, as well as the level of participation and administrative costs. However, Gruber also pointed out that when it comes to the cost of elections, there is a severe lack of transparency. Therefore, it is impossible for taxpayers to know how their money is being spent.

"The voters don't know what they are paying for, they don't know how much they are paying... it all goes into a blackhole of  'trust us, we know how to run elections, and we are going to do what is right by the taxpayer,'" Gruber said.

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In California, nearly a quarter of a million voters had their Senate votes invalidated because they were confused by the ballot design in their county. Thousands of voters were misinformed and unable to vote in the presidential race. Three civil rights attorneys filed a lawsuit ahead of the primaries, alleging many counties weren't doing enough to inform voters of their rights. A lawsuit was filed in San Diego County over the way county officials audit votes, a case that U-T San Diego reports is moving to trial.

"We need a lot more transparency in the reporting of primary election costs, so the public can have a much better understanding of how their money is being used. Because we are talking about a lot of money and almost no accountability for that," Gruber added.

The Confusion May Not End in the Primary

Confusion in the presidential race may carry over to the November election in California. Donald Trump has been nominated for president by two parties in the state -- the Republican Party and the American Independent Party.

Speaking with some county registrars, voters should know that Trump's name will appear with "Republican, American Independent."  However, under state election code EC 13210(c), the current ballot heading says "Vote for One Party," instead of one ‘candidate,’ which could create confusion for some voters.

However, there is a bigger issue that could arise during the election.

Voters need to remember that when they vote for president, they are not really electing the next president -- they are choosing the electors who will elect the next president. Under California law, it’s the parties that select the potential electors for the state -- including current and former party leaders and elected officials.

Now, it is generally assumed that Hillary Clinton will take California, but one registrar commented that if 2016 had shown them one thing, it was that anything could happen. Voters who vote for Trump are left wondering whose electors they are actually voting for: Republican electors or American Independent electors?

To date, it has not been confirmed what deal, if any, will be reached between the Republican Party and the American Independent Party in how the potential electors will be allocated between the parties.

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Photo Source: New York Times

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