Cambrian: Opinion

Make voting easier — or voters could feel disenfranchised

I picked up my “I voted” sticker after casting my ballot at the county clerk’s office, 1055 Monterey St., in San Luis Obispo.
I picked up my “I voted” sticker after casting my ballot at the county clerk’s office, 1055 Monterey St., in San Luis Obispo.

I voted the other day. Got my official “I voted” sticker to prove it. But that doesn’t mean it all went off without a hitch.

Let’s start at the beginning. As many of you know, I moved to Cambria a couple of months ago, so I needed to change my voter registration. I decided, since I was filling out a new form anyway, that I’d change my voting status to unaffiliated, officially known as No Party Preference (NPP) but also called “decline to state” or the more dangerously ambiguous “independent.”

That ambiguity arises because it’s easy to confuse “independent” with American Independent, the name of an actual political party. If you want to register as an independent (NPP) but mistakenly ask for an American Independent ballot, you won’t be able to vote in the Democratic primary — which is open this year to NPP voters. Either way, you won’t be able to vote in the Republican primary, which is closed to everyone except Republicans.

In California, each party makes its own rules when it comes to selecting a nominee for president: Only the Libertarians, American Independents and Democrats welcome NPP voters. But those three parties’ candidates don’t appear automatically on every ballot. If you’re an NPP voter but want to participate one of those three primaries, you have to request a ballot for the party of your choosing in advance. Otherwise, you’ll wind up without any presidential candidates on your ballot … which brings me to my situation.

Having filled out my new registration form and mailed it in, I called the county clerk-recorder to request a Democratic ballot.

Too late.

They’d already mailed out an NPP ballot with no presidential option. The person on the other end of the phone told me I should email the clerk-recorder’s office with my request for a partisan ballot, and I did so immediately, on April 20. The response came quickly: It wouldn’t be a problem. I’d just need to destroy the nonpresidential ballot and they’d mail a new one.

So I waited. Vote-by-mail ballots were sent out the second week of May, and my wife got her partisan ballot almost immediately — even though she’d sent her registration after I did. Several days later, I received my nonpresidential NPP ballot, which I dutifully destroyed.

I waited some more. Finally, on May 19, I started to get worried and contacted the clerk-recorder’s office. If it didn’t come in the next day’s mail, I was told, I should send another email asking for a new one.

When the ballot failed to arrive that Friday, I emailed the clerk-recorder’s office again and was assured a new ballot would be in the mail by the first thing Monday. But with just over two weeks left until the election and the other ballot having failed to arrive after nearly the same amount of time, I decided not to chance it. I drove from Cambria into San Luis Obispo, where I picked up a ballot and filled it out right there at the clerk-recorder’s office.

That’s where I got my “I voted” sticker.

The people at the clerk-recorder’s office were very helpful and responded immediately to my queries each time I emailed. Nothing to complain about there.

My complaints involve the voting process itself. One party welcomes NPP voters; another doesn’t. Some states have caucuses; others have primaries. Despite what it says on the ballot, votes are cast for delegates, not the actual candidates, and those delegates can change their minds. Then there are superdelegates on the Democratic side, many of whom have their minds made up before any votes are even cast — and who aren’t even chosen by voters at all.

In California, a group called the Voting Rights Defense Project was so concerned about the confusion over the NPP issue that it filed a lawsuit seeking to extend the deadline to register right up until Election Day, June 7. The suit alleged that some counties hadn’t done a good enough job of informing NPP voters that they could request for a presidential ballot from one of three parties.

Whether the suit has merit or not, it’s hard to argue that the process is in any way clear or self-explanatory, and that speaks to a flaw in the system. No matter how good a job clerks do of explaining things, they’re not going to reach everyone, and some people will get left behind. Including, as it so happens, all the Republican voters in the nation’s most populous state.

Because of the staggered primary system, in which California votes at the end of the line, they’ll go to the polls this year knowing a candidate has already been chosen for them. How many people will stay home as a result — and thus fail to vote for down-ballot candidates and issues? It’s impossible to say, but it’s a sure bet that some will.

A single, national primary with uniform rules allowing open access to voters of all parties — and no party — would solve this problem, but that’s too easy. And perhaps, dare I say it, too fair for our liking.

Which is too bad.

Oh, and the funny thing is, that partisan ballot I requested back on April 20? It actually did arrive — finally — in my mailbox on May 26.

I tore it up and threw it in the trash.

Stephen H. Provost: 805-927-8896