If the state Legislature has its way, the 52-year-old American Independent Party is going to need to find a new name, and it’s going to need to do it in a hurry.

A bill on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk would bar any political party from using “independent” in its name and, not coincidentally, give the American Independent Party, the largest of the state’s four minor parties, little more than a month either to change its name or be ousted from the California primary ballot in March.

If Newsom signs the bill, it will spark a court battle about just what rules California can put on a political party, especially when the rules are set by the competing political parties that run the Legislature.

“We have an attorney and as soon as the governor signs it, we’ll be in court the same day,” said Mark Seidenberg, California vice-chair of the American Independent Party.

The bill, SB696 by state Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, states that a political party with a name that includes “independent” — or “decline to state” or “no party preference” — “inherently misleads voters” and creates “confusion for voters who wish to not register with any political party and stay independent of political parties.”

Umberg made it clear that his bill is aimed directly at one party.

“Many individuals who truly wish to be outside a political party preference are misguided by the name of certain parties when they register,” Umberg said when he introduced the bill in February.

That would be the American Independent Party, which for years has been accused of having its membership bolstered by people who mistakenly thought they were registering as independent voters, not as members of an ultraconservative party formed in 1967 to boost the presidential ambitions of George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor.

If so, that’s been effective. The party, which has its headquarters in Vacaville, has 517,872 registered voters, more than the Libertarian, Green, and Peace and Freedom parties combined.


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“The American Independent Party objects to a forced name change on its own behalf and on behalf of many of those who no doubt chose to register with our party, liking the designations ‘American’ and ‘independent,'” party leaders said in a letter opposing Umberg’s bill.

Umberg’s bill said the ban on “independent” was necessary because “voter education is ineffective in remedying this voter confusion,” an assertion that American Independent Party officials called “remarkable (and inherently insulting to voters).”

The party may dominate the other minor parties in numbers, but it’s almost invisible in California politics. While none of the minor parties has had success in partisan races, with the lone exception of the Green Party’s Audie Bock’s 1999 win in a special election for an Alameda County Assembly seat, the Greens, the Libertarians and the Peace and Freedom Party at least try.

In the 2018 primary, those three parties each had at least one candidate collect more than 2% of the vote in a statewide race, which ensured they would stay on the ballot for another four years.

The American Independent Party didn’t run any statewide candidates in 2018, choosing instead to endorse Republicans down the line. But the party’s registration numbers are strong enough that they are in no danger of losing a spot on the ballot under the current rules.

That could change if Newsom signs Umberg’s measure, which under an urgency clause would take effect immediately.

If the party is forced to change its name, every member has to be informed, which could prompt them to change their registration. If there isn’t a name change by the Oct. 29 deadline, those voters would immediately be re-registered as no-party-preference voters.

The change is needed immediately, said Secretary of State Alex Padilla, because the presidential primary is the only California election in which voters can cast ballots only for their own party’s candidates. In every other election, candidates from every party share the same ballot, with the top two finishers meeting in November.

If people signed on to the American Independent Party by mistake, “voters may be prevented from voting for the candidate of their choosing,” Padilla said in a Sept. 6 letter urging Newsom to sign the bill.

The battle could go to the courts, said Richard Winger, who runs the Ballot Access News website.

“No state in history has ever ordered a ballot-qualified party to change its name,” said Winger, who testified against the bill in Sacramento. “There are a dozen court precedents that suggest this would violate … the Constitution.”

The nonpartisan analysis of the bill by state Senate staff also warns of potential legal problems.

“By requiring one existing political party to change its current name, this bill could be interpreted as a violation of the rights of free speech and association guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution,” the analysis said.