Cleansing the GOP of Independents

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

If Sarah Palin wants to find death panels, she need look no farther than the executive committee of the California Republican Party. The California GOP leadership has shown one and only one political skill in recent years, losing elections. In the past 15 years they have elected one insurance commissioner and one governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom they all detest. Other than in gerrymandered districts, the GOP cannot elect anyone in California.

So it no surprise that the GOP executive committee has now decided – or will shortly – to ban independent voters from voting in GOP primaries. Independents are the largest growing share of the California electorate and include many young people and newly registered voters. It is no surprise that a party whose demographic is largely elderly white people would want to exclude them.

As party activist Patrick Dorinson puts it, “They want to pull up the ladder to the tree house where they play. They’re treating the GOP like it’s a club where they all make the rules for everyone, and the sign says, ‘No girls allowed and no Latinos’.” Rob Lapsley of the California Chamber of Commerce complains that this is the “the worst thing the party could ever do,” noting that California Democrats have benefitted by welcoming independent voters into their primaries.

They complain too much. The fact is that the California Republican party is a dying political body, and whether they allow independents to vote in their primaries is totally irrelevant.

That is because independent voters do not want to vote in Republican primaries, in fact they do not want to vote in any primary election under current rules. In the 2008 primary, 1,781,695 Republican primary voters were cast, but only 63,778 of these ballots were cast by independent voters. That is less than four percent of GOP ballots, and only 1.4 percent of the total turnout. Independents do vote in somewhat higher numbers in Democratic primaries, nearly 200,000 cast Democratic ballots in June 2008. But independents only accounted for eight percent of the total primary turnout.

Independents do not vote in party primaries for a simple reason; they have to ask for a party ballot. One is not automatically sent to them; as a consequence, most independents do not know that they have the right to ask for a party ballot.

So whether the death panel that passes for the GOP state committee cleanses its party of independent voters is really not relevant to electoral outcomes. It is just a further sign to the electorate that the small and dying party wishes to remain that way.

Rather than whining about the GOP exclusion, reformers ought to put their efforts where it will really count, passage of the top-two open primary measure that will be on the June 2010 ballot. Then it won’t matter what the GOP reactionaries do, all voters will be able to vote from the same primary ballot for any candidate they wish. Now that would really change things.

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