In summary

Less than a week out from California’s March 3 primary, campaigns and election administrators here are sweating the small stuff.

A spectre is haunting the county elections offices and campaign headquarters of California: Iowa.

Last month, Iowa’s Democratic presidential caucuses were beset with reporting errors, app malfunction and other organizational mishaps. A prolonged snafu delayed — and delayed and delayed — the announcement of the final results. Campaigns are still debating the final tally, potentially sewing mistrust in the validity of the overall nomination process.

Now, less than a week out from California’s March 3 primary, campaigns and election administrators here are officially sweating the small stuff.

California allows voters to cast their ballots early by-mail; hundreds of thousands already have. It allows people to register to vote on Election Day. The simple “how to” of voting can differ county to county. And the state is now inviting an electorate accustomed to nonpartisan every-name-on-the-same-ballot elections to participate in a decidedly partisan primary — if they can figure out how. 

Hence this online campaign video from Bernie Sanders about the minutiae of state election procedure. 

“Hey California!” the Vermont senator says, directly into the camera. “If you want to participate in the presidential primary, you need to request a Democratic ballot.” 

Sanders, who holds a commanding lead in most California primary polls, then proceeds to wade through some of the more esoteric points of state election law — how “no party preference” Californians can vote by mail, how they can vote in person, what to do if they’ve already received a ballot without the names of any presidential candidates on it.

Answer to that last one: “Don’t use your old NPP ballot, just turn in the new Democratic crossover ballot,” Sanders said, diligently rattling off a list of terms and acronyms that mean absolutely nothing to voters outside of California, before directing confused supporters to a hotline.

(Confused voters of all stripes can also check out the CalMatters election guide here).

But while no one is predicting an Iowa-scale catastrophe, there are no shortage of possible hitches. 

If there is a record turnout, that could lead to long lines. If high numbers of people registered without a party preference show up on Election Day requesting crossover ballots to vote in a party’s primary,  that could drain polling officials of their ballots. Fifteen counties are now running “vote centers” — closing familiar polling places in favor of a shorter number of one-stop-shops for all voting and registration issues open to anyone in the county.

Add to all of those risks this one: Los Angeles County has a new computerized voting system that only displays four candidates at a time

“I am up all night these days going over the operation piece by piece,” said Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley. “This process is as close to a military operation (as we) can get in the civilian world.”

As part of this offensive, Kelley said his office has spent $2.5 million blasting out public service announcements, social media posts and emails explaining the new process. The average voter in the county ought to have been bombarded with such messaging at least ten times, he said.

Of particular focus is the “no party preference” question. Voters who are not registered with a particular party have to specifically request a Democratic presidential ballot if they want to vote in that primary. (Those who want to vote in the Republican primary have to re-register entirely). 

“We have provided extra communication to our NPP voters, but like with anything else, many won’t pay attention until it’s close to or on Election Day,” Kelley added. 

Kelly said he has been “pleasantly surprised” by how smoothly things have been going so far. But already, the preemptive blame deflection has begun: the Sanders campaign blaming the state process, the state putting the onus on counties, and some county officials saying the buck stops with voters.

Last week, Sanders warned that because of California’s system of requiring political independents to jump through additional administrative hoops to participate in the Democratic primary, we “risk locking out millions of young people of color — and many, many other people who wanted to participate in the Democratic primary but may find it impossible for them to do so.”

This isn’t solely a Sanders concern, said Paul Mitchell of the electoral analytics firm Political Data Inc.

“All the campaigns will have segments of their electorate in which this is a key segment,” he said. Though based on current polling, Sanders and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg “have the most to gain from these voters turning out.”

Sam Mahood, a press secretary for California’s Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, said the state’s top election official has never put more resources into informing no party preference voters how to vote for their candidate of choice. 

“There have also never been more safety nets for voters heading into an election, particularly with regard to crossover voting,” he said. “Even if you show up on Election Day with the wrong party or want to change parties, you can do that now.”

And for those still wringing their hands about the Iowa caucuses not crowning a victor on election night (or the night after that, or the night after that), expect more of the same. California is certain to slow roll the announcement of its election results, which may not be clear for days, and won’t be certified until mid-April.

To be clear, that’s a feature of our system, not a bug. Many voters cast their ballots by mail, which will be counted if postmarked through Election Day, even if they arrive up to three days later. This year, voters can register to vote or change parties on Election Day itself. Those registration cards will need to be verified, which slows the counting process further. 

“We take our time, and we count these ballots, and we make sure we know what our ballot count is — and that’s one the differences between California and Iowa,” said Chris Miller, another spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office.

As for logistical Election Day issues such as long lines, the state is putting that squarely on the counties.

In January, the director of the Secretary of State’s election division sent a memo to county election officials across the state urging them to prepare for higher-than-expected turnout and “to plan accordingly to ensure that each polling location has a sufficient number of ballots, including any required multilingual ballots, and other voting materials available.”

Kings County Registrar Lupe Villa said he will have a crack team of supply-toting county employees ready to drive extra registration cards to overtaxed polling places at a moment’s notice on March 3.

For no-party-preference voters who show up requesting a Democratic ballot, he said the county can also print ballots on demand.

Even so, some are predicting that many no party preference voters will end up feeling disenfranchised. According to statewide election data assembled by Mitchell of Political Data Inc, only 10% of political independents who vote by mail have received Democratic ballots. Based on prior polling Mitchell has conducted, he said two-thirds of no-party-preference voters have expressed interest in the Democratic primary. That could leave many surprised and confused voters — those who did not see the postcards the county sent them explaining the process — who open their ballot on or near Election Day only to discover they don’t have a say in the primary. 

“We in California have done so much to advance the right to vote, and this is essentially disenfranchisement by postcard,” said Mitchell. “We’re talking millions of voters.”

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...