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Is it too hard to get a new political party on the ballot in California?

After five years of behind-the-scenes work, the Common Sense Party recently came closer to qualifying for the California ballot than any other aspiring political party has in more than a decade.

But the Secretary of State says the group, along with nine others attempting to qualify before the June 7 primary, still didn’t drum up enough support to make this year’s ballot.

Leaders from the Common Sense Party — which bills itself as a political haven for frustrated current and former Republicans and Democrats — are still researching how they fell short and pledging to build on what they’ve started in hopes of being able to back candidates on the 2024 ballot.

They’re also asking about how the party qualification process works in California, and whether one change to registration reporting requirements might make it easier for other aspiring parties down the road.

Breaking up the partisan divide that comes with a system controlled by two major parties is a concept most Californians and Americans of all stripes — in survey after survey  — say they support. But in California it’s not easy for a new party to qualify for the ballot, as evidenced by the fact that only 19 parties have been on the ballot in the 112 years since the state started the party nomination process.

Along with the major philosophical and financial hurdles, there also are mechanisms in state law that make it challenging for new parties to break through. Most states make it easier than California, while others offer tiered systems that give fledgling political parties more ways to get on the ballot and then make them work hard to stay there or to earn additional distinctions.

Without the ability to run under the Common Sense Party banner, group co-founder Tom Campbell, a former five-term GOP congressman from Orange County who now teaches law at Chapman University, said several promising candidates have told him they’ll sit out of the election this year.

But despite calls for new voices in politics, some political observers and leaders, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, argue that there are good reasons for making it tough for parties to get on the ballot. They point to evidence that suggests letting parties on a ballot without much backing does little to change elections, suggesting the costs for lowering the bar might not be worth any potential benefits.

“I don’t think it should be impossible, but it also should not be so easy that you could have 30 parties” on a ballot, said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles lawmaker and public affairs professor at UCLA.

“All it does is further complicate and splinter the electorate.”

Process scrutinized

Anyone can attempt to create a new political party in California. To get the ball rolling, the group only needs to hold a caucus or convention, where they elect temporary officers and decide on a party name. They then need to file notice with the Secretary of State.

That simple process has landed a number of interesting groups on the state’s list of aspiring political parties. One of the most crowded rosters in recent years was in 2010, when 16 groups tried to qualify, including the Anarchy and Poverty Party, the Cannabas Party and the We Like Women Party. Other groups that have at least symbolically tried for political party status in recent years include the Hogwash Party, so named for the “nonsense” they say most politicians spread, and the K9 Party, which has a platform built around “the three attributes of dogs that make ‘man’s best friend’ so special.”

But actually getting a party on the California ballot is a different, and much more complex, process.

To qualify, an aspiring party can collect signatures of support from 10% of state voters, which by latest registration counts would be 2.4 million names. Or they need to get 0.33% of California’s registered voters — excluding people currently listed as No Party Preference — to actually change their party affiliation. Though that second route requires a much smaller number (about 56,000 people by current counts), the rules also require that those signatures be turned in at least 154 days before a primary or 123 days before a presidential election.

Since California’s statewide party nomination process began in 1910, state records show just 19 parties have qualified to participate in primary elections. The last time a new political party qualified for the ballot in California was in 2011, when the Americans Elect made the cut using the signature petition method.

And qualifying for a ballot doesn’t guarantee a political party will last. To stay on the ballot, parties have to keep at least 0.067% of the state’s voters (14,700 by last count) registered with them. Over the years, Americans Elect and 12 other parties have fallen off the ballot.

Just six parties are qualified for the current election cycle: the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the far-right American Independent Party, the left-wing Peace and Freedom Party, the socially liberal but fiscally conservative Libertarian Party, and the left-leaning Green Party.

By way of contrast, the New Mexico ballot included eight parties for the 2020 presidential election, while South Carolina had 10 and Mississippi had 13, according to data tracked by Ballotpedia.

It’s also easier in most of these states for parties to get candidates on the ballot. In Delaware, for example, parties have until three weeks before a primary and only need to get 0.1% of the state’s registered voters to join up. In Maine, the registration requirement is a flat number of 5,000 voters.

For parties that want to qualify by getting signatures from supporters, where California requires 10% of registered voters, it’s just 2% in Idaho, 0.5% in New Mexico and 0.1% in Hawaii.

Unlike California, a number of states also have different tiers of political parties. To qualify as a “major” political party in Minnesota, for example, groups need to get signatures from 5% of registered voters. They need just 1% to become a “minor” political party.

Eleven states let candidates list just about any party they want on the ballot. And if that candidate gets a certain percentage of the vote in that cycle, the party is recognized as official. In Connecticut, for example, groups can qualify as minor parties if their candidate gets 1% of the vote and as major parties if they get to 20%.

Some argue it should be challenging for parties to get on the ballot in California because the state’s campaign finance limits are more lenient for political parties than they are for individual candidates or political action committees.

Last year, when Newsom vetoed a bill that would have lowered one threshold for new political parties to get on the ballot, he said he did so because he feared the new rules would “create confusion among voters due to the constant churn of parties coming onto, and falling off of, the ballot.” Newsom also cited the added work for county elections officials and costs for the state to update party counts and create multiple ballot variations each cycle.

Even during the pandemic, when some states temporarily reduced the number of voter registrations or signatures parties needed to collect to get on the ballot, California’s Secretary of State declined to follow suit. The Common Sense Party sued over that decision and lost in January 2021.

Falling short

Despite that loss, Common Sense Party leaders were confident during interviews in early February that they’d convinced enough people to switch their voter registration to land the party on the ballot in California’s primary.

They needed 55,986 registered voters by the Jan. 4 deadline. But the Secretary of State only updates aspiring party registration counts when it does full statewide voter registration reports on a fixed schedule. That leaves parties on their own to track the data between those reports.

During the lawsuit related to COVID-19, Campbell said the state told his party that they had collected only 15,010 registered voters as of June 2020. Since that time, he said canvassers had collected 51,053 registration cards from voters switching to CSP affiliation. So when they turned in their signatures, they were certain they had at least 66,063 voters, plus whoever might have changed registration directly through the state’s website.

But when the Secretary of State’s office issued its most recent report, in February, it found only 30,882 voters registered with the Common Sense Party, or 45% less than what was needed to qualify for the primary ballot.

It’s still not clear why there was such a big discrepancy between the party’s numbers and the state’s numbers. Perhaps, Campbell speculated, there was an error as registration cards went from his party to county elections officials to the Secretary of State. Or maybe thousands of people who registered as Common Sense Party members early last year re-registered as something else before Jan. 4. In a typical off-election year, that would be highly unlikely, but Campbell pointed out the Democratic and Republican parties were trying hard to sign up California voters last year before the failed effort to recall Newman.

No matter the cause, Campbell believes that if the state could have updated the party earlier about its registration numbers, then the party might have caught the discrepancy in time and adjusted their strategy accordingly. So he’s pushing for a new rule that would require the state to make more frequent reports to aspiring parties.

That’s not an easy ask. Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at University of La Verne, noted that California lets voters register in several different ways — through voter registration cards, online, or the Department of Motor Vehicles. That, she said, makes it tough to track registration numbers at a particular point in time. Even the traditional method — voter registration cards, which is what the Common Sense Party collected — must be scanned into county systems before they’re reported to the state.

Regardless, all voters currently registered as Common Sense Party members can maintain that registration. “We’ll certainly continue to add registrations to our party in the months to come,” Campbell said.

The group — which hopes to make the 2024 ballot — also might identify candidates this year who they think are “good fits for our support, even if we can’t formally endorse them if we are not yet an official party,” Campbell said.

Access vs. influence

Getting on the ballot, of course, doesn’t guarantee that a group will have any impact on elections in California.

Combined, the four qualified parties that don’t start with an “R” or a “D” account for just 5% of California’s registered voters. Some, such as the Libertarian party, have been slowly growing, while others, such as the Green Party, have been shrinking.

That said, California’s top-two primary system, in which party identification doesn’t play a role in who moves on from the primary election to the general election, makes it a bit easier for third-party candidates to make waves. Campbell said that’s one reason his party is not yet looking to qualify for a ballot outside of California, since he believes new parties don’t stand much of a chance in states that don’t have top-two primaries.

But even in California, candidates who aren’t Democrats or Republicans have boasted only modest successes in recent elections. In 2020, in state legislative races, only five minor party candidates made it out of the primary to appear in the general election. In each case, those candidates were the only challengers in their primary races, and they all lost in November. Only one minor party presidential candidate received more than 1% of the 2020 vote in California, Libertarian Jo Jorgensen.

“I don’t think most voters like to throw away their vote to very minor parties,” said Yaroslavsky, of UCLA.

So if a party can’t even drum up enough support to get on the ballot, he asked, how are they going to make an impact once they get there?

Source: Orange County Register

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