"Decline to state" (DTS) voters, as independent voters are clumsily known here in California, are the sought-after jewels of this election season of change. Watch CNN or CNBC read the numerous articles written by political pundits in the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times and the mantra is monotone chorus: Independents decided the election this year in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond.
As the fastest- (and only) growing segment of those registered to vote in California, decline to state voters are a juicy target indeed. Some one-fifth of the state's voters are now DTS, compared with only 16.2% in 2004. The usual explanation for this rise of the DTS voter is a result of a growing taste for party independence (or perhaps distaste for party politics as usual).
But there may be a more pedestrian explanation: it turns out that many voter registration forms around the state relegate independents automatically to the ranks of DTS if they fail to pen the word "Democrat" or "Republican" into a small box. This may seem insignificant, but the difference between choosing not to be a part of a political party, and the choice being made for these voters, is the difference between the right to vote and disenfranchisement.
Democratic and Republican registration continues to decline. The last time Democrats were the majority party in this state was 1988; Democrats are now at about 43%. Conventional wisdom (which, along with pollsters, is usually wrong) proclaims that DTS voters in California break "overwhelmingly" Democratic. And since only the Democratic presidential primary is open to DTS voters, they'll naturally be more "Democratic."
The Los Angeles Times and CNN reinforced this "fact" with a jointly issued press release earlier this monthannouncing the results of their poll, saying, "In Iowa and NH, Obama got the bulk of the independent vote, but not in California. Interestingly, both pluralities of Democrat (sic) primary voters and a majority of independent primary voters are supporting Clinton." (Today's LA Times update poll shows a dramatic shift in DTS voter sentiment.) The story the punditocracy took from this poll is that Senator Clinton will do better than Senator Obama among independents in California, unlike in other states.
The only problem with all of this ballyhooing of the obvious is that it's not true. Yes, "decline to state" voters are allowed to vote in the Democratic primary, but the truth is they don't. In the March 2, 2004 California Primary, only 8% of those unaffiliated voters requested a democratic ballot. The actual numbers are starker: About 207,000 "decline to state" voters cast Democratic ballots for a presidential candidate, even though 2,474,950 or so were registered to do so. More than 3 million Democrats, or 47%, voted in that same primary.
On first blush, we might assume that DTS voters just did not want to participate in the Democratic primary; that's why they are DTS. But look again. Over 30% of DTS voters, (compared, again, to 47% of the Democrats) cast ballots in March, 2004, but not for president. They voted only for statewide issues. So they showed up. They voted. But how many knew they had to ask for a Democratic ballot in order to vote in the Democratic presidential primary? Subtract for those "leaning" Republican, and I'll bet not many more than 207,000 knew they had to ask. The rest, perhaps intending to vote in the Democratic primary, received a ballot with a stark white blank page where the candidates' names would reside.
Consider the very high barriers to voting. First, if you vote by mail, as nearly half of the voters will in this election, you have to ask for a Democratic ballot. If you do not ask, you get a DTS ballot, which will have only state and local matters on it. In order to ask for a Democratic vote-by-mail ballot, you have to figure out how to do so by deciphering your sample ballot, or visiting the website of, calling, or going in person to the office of your county registrar. (If you vote by mail, you have only until Tuesday, January 29th--tomorrow--to get your Democratic Party ballot.) If you vote in person, you have to ask for a Democratic Party ballot or you get a DTS ballot, again with no presidential candidates on it.
With literally hundreds of thousands of young first time voters getting into the fray this year, we have an ideal opportunity to get them to vote Democratic. And if they vote this time, as Governor Dean says, they'll likely vote for Democrats in the future.
I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I do wonder. Having unintentionally created a mass of new unaffiliated voters, is the establishment somehow discouraging those who are outside of the two-party system from really participating in it? If a voter decides to select a candidate rather than a party, is she being punished by making it just plain hard for her to vote in the Democratic primary? Or, as with most such theories, is it simply that county elections officials and the Democratic Party here in California are just lazy? (There's no information on the CDP website about how to vote as a DTS voter.)
There is evidence that institutional politics is in disarray. The leadership of the powerful California Teacher's Association clearly wanted to endorse Senator Clinton this past weekend, but the rank and file demanded a postponement until April. In the meantime, Clinton surrogate and anti-labor hack Chris Lehane repeats as though it's dogma that California will for sure vote for the Clintons because former President Clinton is so very popular here.
Maybe, but we want the voters to decide. For the first time in twenty years, your vote really counts here in California because the battle is on for delegates and our primary delivers the most of any in the country.
That's why the Courage Campaign (which I founded and chair), launched a DTS education campaign called "Yes, you can...Vote for President." If we truly want change, we all need to vote. We're contacting over 300,000 DTS voters to tell them how to vote in the Democratic primary next week. If you want to vote, go ask for a Democratic Party ballot and pick your president, no matter what the establishment tells you to do.