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Thousands of California voters, including celebrities, register to wrong party

With nearly half a million registered members, the American Independent Party is bigger than all of California's other minor parties combined. The ultraconservative party's platform opposes abortion rights and same sex marriage, and calls for building a fence along the entire United States border. 

Based in the Solano County home of one of its leaders, the AIP bills itself as “The Fastest Growing Political Party in California."

But a Times investigation has found that a majority of its members have registered with the party in error. Nearly three in four people did not realize they had joined the party, a survey of registered AIP voters commissioned by The Times found.

That mistake could prevent people from casting votes in the June 7 presidential primary, California's most competitive in decades.

Voters from all walks of life were confused by the use of the word “independent” in the party’s name, according to The Times analysis. Residents of rural and urban communities, students and business owners and top Hollywood celebrities with known Democratic leanings — including Sugar Ray Leonard, Demi Moore and Emma Stone — were among those who believed they were declaring that they preferred no party affiliation when they checked the box for the American Independent Party.

“I just blew it,” said Deborah Silva, 64, of Point Arena in Mendocino County. “There were a number of choices. I just checked the box that said ‘independent.’”

Silva said she left the Democratic Party after being at her “wit’s end” from the deluge of mail, phone calls and other campaign paraphernalia from Democrats trying to win her vote.

While California's top-two primary system allows people to vote for any candidate, regardless of party, presidential primaries have different rules.

Republicans have a closed primary this year. Democrats will allow voters registered as having “no party preference” -- the state’s formal term for an unaffiliated, independent voter -- to cast a ballot. But a voter registered with the American Independent Party will only be allowed to vote for presidential candidates on the AIP ballot.

“And now, I’m going to have to tell them,” said Jill LaVine, Sacramento County’s registrar of voters. “And this is going to hit them hard.”

The American Independent Party's roots date back to 1967 when George Wallace, a segregationist, launched his second run for the White House. Wallace, who had run as a Democrat in 1964, helped create the new party and ran on its ticket. Today, that party exists only in California.

"We’re not segregationist anymore,” said Markham Robinson, who serves as chairman of the American Independent Party’s executive committee. “What we are now is a conservative, constitutionalist party.”

At 3% of the state's 17.2 million registered voters, Robinson's party is still vastly outnumbered by Democrats (43%), Republicans (28%) and those stating "no party preference" (24%).

Even so, elections officials have watched the AIP ranks grow while quietly voicing suspicions that much of it was due to error, not enthusiasm.

“I think the name should be something different,” said Gail Pellerin, Santa Cruz County’s registrar of voters. “Right now, it’s misleading.”

“I had a voter totally break down and cry in my lobby,” Pellerin added, recalling a young woman who wanted to vote in the 2008 Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but couldn’t because she'd registered with the American Independent Party.

“The poor thing just sobbed,” Pellerin said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Other elections officials – from Shasta County to San Diego – offered similar stories. AIP leaders expressed skepticism about The Times findings, but also offered regret.

“I’m just sorry that people get confused,” said Mark Seidenberg of Aliso Viejo, the party’s chairman. “A lot of people just don’t understand what they’re doing when they fill out a form.”

Of the 500 people surveyed in The Times poll of AIP voters, fewer than 4% could correctly identify their own registration as a member of the American Independent Party.

“That’s what we call a finding with real statistical viability,” said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster who helped craft the survey in collaboration with The Times and Republican pollster Val Smith. “It’s overwhelming and it’s indisputable.”

After being asked questions about their registration, voters were read a series of statements from the American Independent Party’s official platform, a combination of specific and broad political beliefs. It calls for abiding by duties given to “all men” by “the God they are commanded to love.” It supports a “pro-life Constitution” and proclaims that marriage between a man and a woman is a “God-ordained contract.” And the platform supports what the party labels as the 2nd Amendment’s “right to self defense” and calls for building a fence around the entire United States border.

After being read excerpts of the platform, more than 50% of those surveyed in the poll said they wanted to leave the American Independent Party. The more specific the platform position, the weaker the support of those surveyed. Most of the voters who were polled knew little, if anything, about the party to which they belong.

“The majority of those that are registered that way have some degree of confusion,” said Smith, a veteran who has conducted more than 400 polls for Republicans.

Count Amanda Cabanilla, 25, among them. The one-time Democrat changed her registration with the intention of being independent of all political parties. After she was contacted by The Times’ pollsters, she researched the AIP.

“I couldn’t believe what I was looking at,” she said later.  “They are far to the right of the Republican Party, and their ‘independence’ kind of has the implication that they’re a more centrist or moderate party.”

The Times obtained the list of all Californians registered with the American Independent Party through a public records act request. A review of the rolls discovered the names of some well-known celebrities, verified by their birth dates. Most of them said their registration in the party was a mistake.

“The views of this party do not accurately reflect my personal beliefs and I am not affiliated with any political party,” Kaley Cuoco, best known for her role on “The Big Bang Theory,” said in a statement to The Times. “As such, I am taking the necessary steps to immediately remove my name as a member of this voting party.”

Stone and Leonard plan to re-register before the June election, representatives told The Times. 

Moore has both contributed money to and campaigned for President Obama. Her registration as an AIP member is wrong, a representative said.

“Demi Moore is not, nor has ever been, a member of the American Independent Party,” the representative said. “Any record that states otherwise is a mistake.”

The Times heard similar stories from some prominent California business figures, including Mark Pincus, the co-founder of Zynga, and venture capitalist Jim Breyer.

“The American Independent Party's platform does not reflect my personal or political beliefs,” Breyer told The Times. “Like many others I registered in error and have since updated my registration.”

Even those who have lived lives near the political spotlight acknowledged that they had checked the wrong box.

When Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of the former governor, registered to vote in 2013, he selected the AIP. A family spokesman said Schwarzenegger, 22, now plans to change his registration.

So, too, will Geralyn Buscaino, wife of Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino. After being contacted by The Times, a spokesman said she mistakenly believed her voter registration was as a nonpartisan “independent.”

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, wife of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, accidentally registered as an American Independent in 2007 — a fact revealed in a San Francisco newspaper column while she and Newsom were dating.

“Years ago, thinking I was registering as an independent voter, I unintentionally registered with the American Independent Party, an abhorrent group that does not align with my values in any way,” Newsom said in an email to The Times. “I encourage voters to check their own records before the upcoming presidential primary.”

Even two staff members of The Times were mistakenly registered in AIP.

The deadline to register or change voter registration status for the June 7 primary is May 23.

Some voters who mistakenly registered with the AIP said that they found the state’s official registration materials confusing. Six political parties are listed in alphabetical order on California’s voter registration card, and choosing a party preference comes near the end. The American Independent Party is at the top.

The forms ask if the voter wants to “disclose” a political party preference and register with one of the six parties, and only those who check “No” are considered independent of all parties.

The sharp rise in AIP registrations has helped the party maintain its official status in California. Parties earn a spot on the ballot by enlisting enough voters to join them. And the easiest way to keep that spot is by not letting their numbers fall below a fixed percentage of the state’s overall voter registration.

So if a large number of AIP members change their registration, the party could lose the official recognition it has had for almost five decades.

Party leaders say that is one reason they are reluctant to change the name, which would force it “to go get new voters and that’s expensive,” said Seidenberg, the party chairman.

Former Alabama governor Wallace and his core group of California backers enlisted more than 94,000 voters with the American Independent Party by November 1968. But just two months later, state records show the party’s membership was shrinking. It didn’t regain the size of its Wallace-era membership until 1980.

Two of the state’s most robust growth spurts in both voters choosing to be unaffiliated with a party and American Independents came in periods during which third party or so-called "independent" presidential efforts were most prominent: the 1980 campaign of Illinois Republican Rep. John Anderson and the 1992 campaign of Texas businessman Ross Perot.

American Independent Party leaders tried to include GOP candidate Donald Trump on their list of presidential candidates for the June statewide primary. State elections officials refused, pointing out that there was no record of Trump’s willingness to accept the party’s help.

Robinson, the American Independent Party’s most visible and long serving leader in California, is a prolific political commentator on Twitter. His recent tweets have offered support for Trump’s promise of a wall between the United States and Mexico, as well as his one-time suggestion of criminal punishment for women who have an abortion.

“If we punish abortionists (accomplices) & not the perpetrator (generally the mother) all who hire killers must be unpunished also,” wrote Robinson in a tweet on March 31.

Robinson, 72, told The Times that the party may try again to boost Trump this fall if he fails to win the Republican Party nomination.

“If he’s cheated out, we’re very likely to put him on the ballot line of the American Independent Party,” said Robinson.

When American Independent Party members cast their ballots on June 7, they will be confined to voting for one of seven presidential candidates of which they’ve probably never heard: people like Wiley Drake, an Orange County minister promising to abolish welfare assistance, or Jim Hedges, a Pennsylvania minor party activist who supports banning alcohol near college campuses.

In California this year, the American Independent Party has endorsed Republican Tom Del Beccaro in the race for the U.S. Senate.

“If we’re able to endorse, we’re able to influence,” said Robinson. Official AIP activities are hard to find. Robinson said party members gather twice a year, with about 60 members planning to participate in an online meeting scheduled for this summer. The AIP website still lists ballot measure recommendations for the Nov. 2012 election.

How, or whether, to address voter confusion over the name of the American Independent Party is not a question easily answered.  The party has been officially qualified for years, and elected officials are hesitant to require it to change its name.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who reviewed a copy of the poll provided by The Times, said he hadn’t considered taking any steps to address the confusion, either.

“My office isn't in the business of censoring or amending a political party's name,” he said. “It’s a very imperfect process.”

Robinson said he once supported changing the name but rejected the idea because the party would lose its official status and have to be re-certified.

“I don’t think this is that big of a deal,” said state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), chairman of the Senate Elections and Redistricting Committee. “What really matters is your ability to vote in the way you want to vote.”

Local elections officials say absent any change in election law, they will keep trying make sure that voters are well-informed when they register their party preferences.

“We haven’t conducted a statewide effort to really educate people,” said Chad Peace, president of the Independent Voter Network, a San Diego-based organization that advocates for nonpartisan changes to the elections process.

If a wide swath of Californians suddenly realize they missed their chance at being politically independent, he said, “I think that people are going to be really upset.”

Los Angeles Times staff writers Lauren Raab, Christina Bellantoni, Julie Westfall and Anthony Pesce contributed to this report.

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