An effort to limit voter confusion in California by banning the use of the word “independent” in a political party’s name was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday, a rejection of a proposal that would have forced one of the state’s lesser-known political parties to change its name.
The bill was the product of years of complaints by elections officials and political watchers who noted that voters who wanted to be unaffiliated with any party had been mistakenly registering with the American Independent Party of California instead of selecting the “no party preference” choice on voter forms. There were almost 518,000 voters registered with that party as of the last official state report, an increase of almost 30% over the past decade.
Newsom’s veto message said he couldn’t sign a bill that only impacted one group.
“By requiring one existing political party to change its current name, this bill could be interpreted as a violation of the rights of free speech and association guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” he wrote.
Representatives of the American Independent Party, which was established in 1968 to boost the presidential effort of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, have long insisted they don’t believe there is widespread confusion over the name. But a 2016 investigation by the Los Angeles Times found a sizable number of voters had no idea they belonged to a political party, much less one with an ultra-conservative platform. A poll conducted for The Times as part of the investigation found 73% of American Independent Party voters thought they were actually unaffiliated voters.
The party’s current platform includes staunchly conservative positions against abortion rights, gun control and gay marriage. President Trump was the selection of the party as its standard-bearer in 2016 and its party leaders have expressed a desire to align their choice with the Republican Party again next month.
Though SB 696 was approved by both houses of the Legislature last month, it landed on Newsom’s desk with the same concerns over its constitutionality raised by the governor. Critics have said that the state couldn’t ban a political party from using a name of its choice, insisting that the only thing the state could do was to keep educating voters about how to fill out the section of the registration form that asks about political party preference.
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Concerns over voter confusion have risen as more Californians have dropped their formal political affiliations, choosing instead to not align with any of the state’s six officially recognized parties. Unaffiliated voters now make up more than 28% of the state’s electorate.
The bill also sought to ban use of the phrases “no party preference” or “decline to state” — the two official ways that unaffiliated voters have been described in California in recent years.
State Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), the bill’s author, said he was disappointed by the governor’s rejection of the bill. Still, he said in a message on Wednesday, he plans to reintroduce the proposal when the Legislature convenes again in January.