Our View: More voters fed up with parties
It's their party, and they'll cry if they want to — because party members are leaving.
According to new data from California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the number of voters joining the two major parties, Democratic and Republican, continues to slide. The big gainer: No Party Preference.
The numbers will change somewhat by Election Day, Nov. 6. But as of Sept. 7, of 23.8 million eligible Californians, 17.3 million were registered to vote. That is 73 percent, up from 70 percent for the 2008 presidential election. This year, 43.3 percent registered as Democrats, down from 44 percent in 2008 and 47.1 percent in 1996.
Registered Republicans totaled 31.1 percent, down from 32.3 percent in 2008 and 37 percent in 2006, making the Republican Party decline sharper. However, Republicans have not yet sunk to "third-party status," as some critics have said. GOP lawmakers have little clout in Sacramento, where Democrats solidly control houses of the Legislature and hold all statewide elective offices. But Republicans retain much influence in local politics and among California's congressional delegation.
Voters choosing No Party Preference jumped to 21.3 percent in 2012 from 19.5 percent in 2008 and have nearly doubled from 10.7 percent of 1996.
"It's been a long-term trend away from the political parties," said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College. "The Top Two reform accelerated it." He referred to the primary election system adopted by voters in 2010. It established a primary in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election.
Top Two affects races for statewide offices, the Legislature and Congress but not contests for political party central committees or for US president. But because California's primary typically is so late in the year, this year it was June 5, the primary usually has little effect on the presidential race.
"Party registration no longer is the gateway to participation," Pitney said. "No matter which party you belong to, we're all in the same Top Two boat."
With both the state Legislature and Congress rated poorly in opinion polls, is Top Two producing better candidates this year?
Pitney said that it's too early to tell because the 2012 election also is the first run under another reform, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.
Voters gave the panel the job of redrawing legislative districts each decade, supposedly to prevent the nearly guaranteed re-election incumbents enjoyed when the Legislature drew district lines.
"But if history is any guide, procedural changes rarely have the intended effects," he said.
Democrats also anticipate reaching perhaps two-thirds majorities in the Assembly and Senate in November. "I don't know if there's a connection with Top Two or voter registration, but there's a good chance they would get the two-thirds vote," Pitney said. If that happens, Democrats could enact and raise taxes without any Republican votes.
So, even as they account for less than half of California's registered voters, Democrats could be close to achieving total control of state government and, with it, complete responsibility for the state's economic health.