At San Diego’s Golden Hall in 2018, former Republican Assemblyman Jeff Marston watches how the state’s “jungle primary” that he helped write works out. Photo by Ken Stone

If Republicans are red and Democrats blue, what are independents — at least what hue?

In California, new data from the Secretary of State’s Office explodes the picture of No Party Preference voters as being moderate or “middle of the road.”

Some 83,000 NPP registrants changed their status in December and January — with more than 2-to-1 becoming Democrats over Republicans. Over a similar period in 2017, about 41,500 NPP Californians opted to join parties. (Democrats picked up 25,225 and the GOP gained 9,431.)

Jeff Marston isn’t surprised.

A founder of the Independent Voter Project, the San Carlos resident helped usher in California’s “jungle primary” system, where the top two finishers in the primary — of any party — go on to a November runoff election.

“The percentages of NPPs going to Democrats vs. going to Republican is … kind of proportional” to the state’s balance of power, says Marston, 65.

“I hear political scientists … who kind of ding us … about there’s no such thing as a true independent voter, and they generally are Republicans or Democrats or former Republicans or Democrats that still lean the way of their party. … And they’re absolutely correct,” he said. “And we’ve never said otherwise.” 

He also agrees with conventional wisdom that people who register with the American Independent Party are confused, saying: “I’d be willing to bet the farm that 75% of those people thought they were registering as NPPs. They don’t even know what NPP is.”

(A leader of the California AIP didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Many observers think the Jan. 6 Capitol riot triggered many Republicans to flee the party. But could the same be said of NPP voters, sometimes called “Decline to state”?

Marston, a one-time Republican Assembly member, says he has no doubt that after Jan. 6, “people just became … pissed off at their own party. I have a whole bunch of friends that say: ‘It’s embarrassing to be a Republican.’ Now, does that translate into switching to a Democrat? I don’t know.”

After 2020’s intensely partisan election, he says, “you’ve got these people who have left their party because of one reason or the other. And they decide to go back with the home team, just because they’re pissed off at the other guys.”

He says he’s curious to see how many recently returned Republicans or Democrats decide in six months to go back to NPP.

Chad Peace, legal adviser to the Independent Voter Project, says many political and practical reasons are behind voters’ choice to register as NPP.

“One factor, for example, is that the ‘Motor Voter’ program used to, by default, ask first: ‘Do you want to join a political party?’ If you answered no, you were registered NPP. They changed that (after) so many people were registering NPP,” he said.

“Now they ask you, ‘What political party do you want to join?’ And only if you select “I do not want to join a party” among the list of party options, will you be registered/remain NPP.”

Peace, the son of former Democratic state lawmaker Steve Peace, also sees NPP-leavers choosing Democrats over Republicans as people wanting to be on a winning team.

“Why be a part of a party that has no power in the state?” Peace said via email.

According to state records, some 19,420 state Democrats re-registered after Jan. 6, with 8,611 becoming NPP and 5,661 joining the GOP.

Why these changes?

“Some Democrats might just think their own party has become so ideological and unreasonable that they decided it was time to officially leave it,” Peace said. “In other words, ‘the party left them.’ Being party of the ‘winning team’ doesn’t matter to these voters.”

It remains true that only a tiny fraction of Republicans and Democrats, or NPP voters, change registration. In November, California had 10.1 million Democrats and 5.3 million Republicans. So defections are rare.

A California Republican Party spokeswoman last week responded to Times of San Diego queries by highlighting new registrants.

“Since 2019, the California Republican Party added 624,000 new voters,” said Samantha “Sam” Henson, CAGOP’s communications manager. “Helping fuel that growth is Governor Newsom’s lack of leadership. With the constantly changing pandemic lockdowns, billions in unemployment fraud, and a botched COVID-19 distribution program, we expect to recall Governor Newsom and for the California Republican Party to continue welcoming members who are sick and tired of Newsom’s excuses.”

The California Democratic Party didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Pease says a variety of factors will determine how party registration changes statewide in the future, including voting laws.

“But as a general matter, voters will increasingly reject both parties, even if they are forced to choose among them unless one or both parties become less ideologically rigid,” he said.

Marston, a longtime political consultant, pines for the time rival politicos could fight but remain friendly.

“Thirty years ago, I saw it just starting to change,” he said. “The days of yelling at each other on the Assembly floor and then going out for a beer afterwards and laughing about it — they’re just gone.”

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