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FRIDAY REPORT / An in-depth look at people and policies
shaping Southern California

Voters Push for Independence

Electorate: People who decline to affiliate with a political party make up an increasing proportion of the participants in California elections. At 14% of the total, they have the potential for critical effects on outcomes.


For more than 20 years, the number of California's independent voters has grown slowly but inexorably.

In Los Angeles County, for instance, 1 in 7 registered voters is an independent, a dramatic increase from 1 in 50 in 1966.

That growth is reflected across the state. Independents now total nearly 2 million voters, or 14% of California's nearly 14 million voters.

"What is surprising is that there has not been an even more dramatic increase," said Claremont Graduate School political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. "Everything our polling indicates is that there is less and less loyalty to major parties."

Independents, who "decline to state" a party as they register, make up 22% of the electorate in San Francisco, California's most liberal county--the highest percentage in the state.

Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties have about 14% each.

They are the fastest growing group of voters in the state.

"The fascinating thing is that no one is out there" trying to sign up "decline to state" voters, said Mark Baldassare, of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. "The most successful voter registration effort in California today is one that doesn't exist."

These voters are saying they don't want to be Democrats or Republicans, "but I want to register," he said. "That says those voters who are most likely to register are saying, 'I want to choose who I want to vote for.' "

Independents have become a critical wild card in statewide elections, and political experts are scrutinizing them ever more closely to determine the implications of their growing presence.

"We need to know more specifics," Jeffe said. "Where are they? In cities? Suburbs? The research says independents tend to be outward, away from the cities."

They also tend to be younger, better educated and a bit more affluent than voters as a whole, political observers say.

And a clearer picture of their impact on elections may also be emerging.

One theory holds that independents are really disguised Republicans or Democrats who simply choose not to register as such. But Baldassare said no such disguise is evident in California, where independents appear to be "truly independent."

"The majority of independent voters went for Republican Pete Wilson in the 1994 California gubernatorial race," he said. "In 1998, the majority went for Democrat Gray Davis."

Shifting From Party to Party

In California in 1992, he said, independents were almost evenly divided between Democrat Bill Clinton and Reform candidate Ross Perot, 41% to 39%. Republican George Bush captured only 19% of that vote.

"Two years later, independents strongly favored Republican Pete Wilson over Democrat Kathleen Brown, 56% to 35%," he said.

They may shift from one party to another between elections, and sometimes in the same election, he said.

"In 1998, Democrat Gray Davis beat Republican Dan Lungren 60% to 28% among independents," Baldassare said. "In the U.S. Senate race that same year, Democrat Barbara Boxer won [the independent vote] by only 5 points over Republican Matt Fong, 48% to 43%.

"How dow you explain that in the same race?"

California independents tend to support candidates who reflect their own political views, regardless of party, political experts say.

Much like Las Vegas crapshooters who shy away from quiet tables, they prefer to go where the action is. And California's open primary, adopted in 1996, lets them into the game.

"Through the years, new voters would want to register as [belonging to] no party," said Republican campaign strategist Allan Hoffenblum. "Then they saw they couldn't vote [in primary elections]. The open primary changed that."

The 1996 law wound up "enfranchising 14% of voters in California who were never able to vote in primaries before," said Beth Miller, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office.

Tuesday's election will be California's first open primary in a presidential election year. All voters, regardless of their political persuasions, will be able to vote for any candidates they choose.

Independent votes will be tallied in statewide totals, but they will not count toward allocating delegates to either the Democratic or Republican nominating conventions.

Republicans will count only Republican votes in the party's winner-take-all primary. Democrats also will count only Democratic votes, but their delegates will be allocated by congressional district, based on a candidate's proportion of votes in each district.

By counting only the votes of their own members, the parties hope to prevent what many suspect was mischief-making in Michigan by Democrats and independents who provided the margin of victory for Sen. John McCain in that state's Republican presidential primary.

Distrust of Politicians

In exit polling, however, the Detroit Free Press found that many of the independents who had supported McCain said they would also support him in the general election if he were the nominee.

Such voters are just as independent in California, Baldassare said.

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