California Has Become A Graveyard For Independent Candidates

Richard Winger
Editor of Ballot Access News

As the popularity of the major parties has declined, independent and minor party candidates have been doing well.  During the last fifteen years, independent or minor party candidates have been elected to state legislatures in 25 states.  Also during the last fifteen years, such candidates have either been elected, or come in second, for Governor or U.S. Senator in Alaska, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont.  But in California, no independent or minor party candidate has come remotely close to being elected during this century, and virtually no such candidates have even appeared on the California general election ballot.

The states in which a candidate who was not a major party nominee was elected to the state legislature in the last fifteen years are: Alabama 2014; Alaska 2016; Connecticut 2017; Georgia 2012; Illinois 2002; Kentucky 2010; Louisiana 2015; Maine 2016; Massachusetts 2008; Minnesota 2002; Missouri 2011; Montana 2006; Nebraska 2016; New Hampshire 2014; New York 2015; North Carolina 2010; Pennsylvania 2017; Rhode Island 2016; South Carolina 2012; South Dakota 2010; Tennessee 2012; Texas 2016; Vermont 2016; Virginia 2015; and Wisconsin 2010.  For states in which this happened multiple times in the last fifteen years, only the most recent year is shown.

In the past, California was fertile ground for independent candidates.  During 1986-1999, an independent or minor party nominee was elected to the California legislature five times.  Quentin Kopp won as an independent for State Senate in 1986, 1990, and 1994; Lucy Killea won as an independent for State Senate from in 1992; and Audie Bock was elected as a Green to the Assembly in 1999.

How Proposition 14 Injures Independent Candidates

California is no longer favorable to independent candidates because in 2010, Proposition 14 passed.  It says all candidates for Congress and partisan state office must run in the June primary, and then only the top two candidates may run in the general election.  Superficially, this system treats all candidates equally.  In reality, it does not.  That is because Americans are in the habit of only paying attention to independent and minor party candidates after they know who the major parties have nominated, i.e..  after the primary is over.  But under the California top-two system, by then, it is too late.

For example, consider the 2014 race for Secretary of State of California.  Dan Schnur declared as an independent candidate for that office on December 22, 2013.  He was the Director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics.  He had been Governor Pete Wilson’s chief media spokesperson, and Chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.  He raised more money than any other candidate for Secretary of State in the primary period, except for Democrat Alex Padilla.  He was endorsed by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, and the Bakersfield Californian.  He campaigned on making the office of Secretary of State a non-partisan office.  He also advocated a ban on fundraising by state legislators while the legislature is in session.  His message was, “I know how the system works.  I know how it’s broken and I know how to fix it.”

But, in the June 3 primary, he placed fourth, receiving only 9.2% of the vote.  Even State Senator Leland Yee, who had been arrested for corruption on March 26, but whose name remained on the ballot, received more votes. Clearly, the voters had not paid attention to Schnur.  If he had been on the November ballot with the label “independent”, running against a Democratic nominee, a Republican nominee, and various minor party nominees, he might have won; he need not have received a majority, just a plurality.  Being on the November ballot would have meant that he had the period June through November 2 to make his case and become known.

Another disadvantage that Schnur and all California independent candidates for Congress and state office experience is that the California law no longer lets independent candidates be listed on any ballot as “independent.”  Instead they have the unappealing ballot label “Party preference:  none”.

Independent Candidates for President

California election law hostility toward independent candidates even extends to presidential candidates.  California requires almost 200,000 signatures for an independent presidential candidate.  This is not only the highest number of signatures of any state, it is the highest percentage of any state, when the easier method for getting on the ballot (minor party or independent) is compared.  The petition can only be circulated April to August.  Every other state has some means for an independent presidential candidate to get on the ballot with fewer than 50,000 signatures, and only three states plus California require more than 25,000.  Most states don’t control how early the candidate may start to petition.

Most of the other populous states have far easier petition requirements.  Ohio and Pennsylvania each require 5,000; New York requires 15,000; Florida does not require any signatures for a new party to get on (an independent candidate is free to create his or her own party in Florida).  These states do not have crowded general election ballots for president.  None of them had more than six presidential candidates on the ballot in 2016.

An example of an independent presidential candidate who should have been on the ballot in California, but who wasn’t, is Evan McMullin.  He was an independent candidate in the presidential election with considerable experience in government.  He was supported by many Republicans who did not want to vote for Donald Trump.  He didn’t get into the race until August 2016, so he was only able to get on the ballot in eleven states, not including California.  In those eleven states he received 2.4% of the vote cast.  That showing is significant.  In California, even though he wasn’t on the ballot, he got 39,536 write-ins.  He might have qualified for the California ballot if our state had any easier requirement.  The California legislature ought to revise the election laws to eliminate barriers to independent candidate success.


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