March 3, 2000

Independent Voters Threaten California's Two-Party System

By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz

SAN FRANCISCO — The growing number of independent voters, brought about by sweeping socioeconomic changes and the weaknesses of the two main political parties, is clouding the future of the two-party system in California.

San Francisco may be ahead of the curve with 22 percent of the city's voters refusing to name any party when they register (called "decline to state" in California), up from 12 percent in nine years, says Chris Bowman, political director of the local Republican Party.

Non-alignment is exceptionally high among certain minorities, he says: "45 percent of Chinese voters; 43 percent of Vietnamese; 30 percent of Koreans."

This mirrors trends in the nation — independent voters now make up 13 percent of the electorate — and in California, where 13.5 percent (1,980,132) of registered voters decline to state, according to the Secretary of State's office.

"If we don't do anything now, we'll be dead in the water in six years," warns Bowman, a gay Republican pressing for reforms within his party.

San Francisco has been dominated by the Democratic Party so long that many moderately conservative voters may see non-affiliation as a better option than the enfeebled Republican Party.

However, some political observers see weaknesses of both parties as the cause. "Asians are just going by candidate, not by party, because both parties have neglected them," explains David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee.

Lee thinks this is a question of head-counting. "The parties are now doing better with Latinos because they're a large voting population, but Asians are just 10 percent statewide."

The growing popularity of cross-over voting among both Democrats and Republicans also feeds the impulse for non-alignment. Up to 14 percent of Democrats would vote for a Republican if the March presidential primary were held today, while 9 percent of Republicans would vote for a Democrat, according to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Indeed, Bowman thinks the open primary is the immediate cause of the leak in party memberships. "There's no more reason to join parties because anyone can influence the primary."

Nelson Polsby, a political scientist with the UC Institute for Governmental Studies concurs. "Everyone believes that they can nominate anyone regardless of party affiliation, so why bother joining a party?"

"Politics as usual" is the culprit, says Percy Hintzen, head of the University of California, Berkeley's African American Studies Department. "Since the Democrats and Republicans are becoming the same ideologically, voters no longer want to tie themselves to one party," he explains.

Disillusionment with the whole political process, deepened by the sex-and-impeachment scandal, has boosted the candidacies of Bill Bradley and John McCain, not so much for their platforms as for the appeal of individual character.

Still others cite the moderating impact of sweeping economic and demographic changes in California. Young, educated and affluent new voters — winners in the economic boom — tend to be liberal on life style and environmental issues but economically conservative.

Minority populations, especially Latinos, have grown rapidly and their votes are now pivotal in many contests. This can exert a brake on conservative orthodoxy — no candidate in the state, for example, is currently using immigration as a "wedge" issue, a far cry from just a few years ago.

"There's also a growing atomization of society," says Cobie Kwasi Harris, political science professor at Cal State San Jose. "As we become more connected in cyber-space, we become more disconnected socially, more removed from meaningful political ideas which are by nature social."

Harris says the two-party system itself caused the break. "In the two-party system you go for the lowest common denominator, which means real political beliefs get subordinated to getting as many people as you can."

No attractive alternative has appeared — the American Independent Party and the Green Party have grown only slightly and the Reform Party has turned out to be an ineffective alternative says Hint-zen, "except for independent conservatives."

Instead, political consultants have risen in importance. "Candidates are now paying tons of money for professional consultants to run their campaigns," says Lee. "Work that used to be done by the parties' machineries, which are now in decline."

One result is soaring campaign spending. "As your party's base shrinks and independent voters rise you spend more, because you don't know what universe you're dealing with," says Bowman. This opens the gate to self-funded campaigns by rich Johnny-come-latelys, he adds, "and that can't be good."

Harris cautions, "Voters are not necessarily thinking independently, they're just not connected with political discourse," he says.

"They still believe in the same old bull. They're not radical, they're not really challenging the system." If anything, he says, independent voters are vulnerable to demagogues and ballot initiatives that feed off popular biases.

California is already ruled by propositions, says Harris. "Now you'll have more independent voters who, when incited by flashpoint events, think they're being independent by sponsoring or supporting even more ballot initiatives."

Rene P. Ciria-Cruz is a Pacific News Service associate editor and edits New California Media Online (

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