For the first time in decades, the proportion of California voters registering “No Party Preference” has decreased in the lead-up to a presidential primary election.
About 22% of voters in early October did not claim a party preference, down from about 27% before the last presidential primary in 2019, according to new statistics from the California Secretary of State.
The proportion of “No Party Preference” voters had previously increased before each of at least the last seven presidential primaries.
Analysts say the figures may not represent a big shift in voter attitude; rather, they are largely a result of a recent change in the way millions of people register to vote when visiting a Department of Motor Vehicles office.
“The entire registration shifted after the DMV changed their process,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc, a bipartisan voter data firm.
Even so, the change could matter in the upcoming presidential primary. Any “no party preference” voter who wants to cast a ballot in the Republican, Green or Peace and Freedom primary elections for president must re-register as a party member. “No Party Preference” voters can cast ballots in California’s Democratic, Libertarian and American Independent primary elections for president, but only if they first request one of those parties’ ballots.
A big (accidental?) shift
Before the 1992 presidential primary — when Bill Clinton would earn the chance to face off against George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot — about 9% of the state’s voters “declined to state” a party preference.
That figure exploded over the next two decades. Before the 2012 election, 21% of voters were registered as “no party preference.” By 2020, it was 27%.
This shift was not exclusive to California, as voters nationwide increasingly identified as “independent.” Research suggests a number of factors at play, including increased political polarization that left many voters feeling alienated from either Democrats or Republicans.
But there is a discrepancy in California’s figures that is rooted in a major shift to the voter registration process.
In the mid-2010s, California passed a “motor voter” law that automatically registered people getting a driver’s license or ID at the DMV, as well as those changing their address — unless they opted out of registration.
Voter registration boomed, rising by nearly 5 million, or 28%, from January 2016 to October 2023.
At first, a huge proportion of the new voters registered as “no party preference.”
When Mitchell explored why, he noticed that the DMVs registration form asked residents if they wanted to pick a political party. If they answered “yes,” it would take them to another page where they would choose their party.
“You had to actively say, ‘I want a party,’” he said.
The problem, Mitchell and others said, is that many people don’t like standing in front of a computer at the DMV. To get away quickly, many chose “no.”
“The default dumped them into this big pit of no party preference voters,” said Wesley Hussey, professor of political science at Sacramento State.
The DMV changed the process in 2019, Mitchell said. Instead of asking voters if they wanted to pick a party and then asking them to pick a particular party on a new screen, the DMV created a dropdown menu that immediately allowed voters to choose a party. “Republican” and “Democrat” were on the dropdown list, along with third parties. Voters also have a nearby option for “no party preference.”
The effects were immediate.
In December 2018, before the change went into effect, about 53% of voters who registered at the DMV signed up as Democrats or Republicans, according to registration data collected by Mitchell. Three months later, after the change went into effect, that figure jumped to 74%.
The shift has mostly held. During the first ten months of 2023, about 70% of voters registered as either Democrats or Republicans.
A DMV spokesman said that the agency “streamlined the political party selection process” in 2019 based on feedback from the Secretary of State’s office, as well as concerns expressed by nonpartisan civic organizations.
What does it mean?
At the same time, there is some evidence California voters are increasingly identifying with political parties, regardless of changes to the DMV.
In 2016, before motor voter laws went into effect, about 24% of California voters identified as “no party preference,” compared to 22% today.
Mitchell said it is common to see spikes in partisan registration close to presidential primaries as voters become more engaged. In addition, he said, many would argue that people increasingly want to identify with a political party as a sort of cultural marker.
Hussey said that party voter registration and “get out the vote” drives may also have had a small effect on the numbers.
But, Hussey added in reference to the DMV’s change in process, “I think that we’re kind of desperately looking for the second and third reason when that first reason is capturing most of what’s happening.”
The biggest practical effect of the reduction in “no party preference voters,” Hussey and Mitchell said, is that fewer people will need to request a Democratic party primary ballot or switch their registration to the Republican party before they can vote for a presidential candidate in the March 2024 primary.
Compared to just before the 2020 presidential primary, California today has about 500,000 more Republicans, 1.4 million more Democrats, 400,000 more third-party voters — and 500,000 fewer “no party preference” voters.