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The Independent Voters Project sounds noble: "a non-profit, non-partisan, non-political (501(c)4) organization dedicated to better informing voters about important public policy issues and to encouraging non-partisan voters to participate in the electoral process." It's founded by former California Democratic state legislator Steve Peace, who gushes that California's new top-two primary system will empower independent voters. It's spending more than $1 million this spring to reach out to decline-to-state voters in districts where decline-to-state candidates are on the ballot, notably California's congressional districts CA-10, CA-26, and CA-52. And it wants to bring open primaries to Arizona and Texas. But, like many supposedly nonpartisan projects in a hyperpartisan political arena, there's a dark underbelly, this one of corporate money.

The IVP started in 2006 with a contribution of $1 million from John Moores, San Diego Padres owner; Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, kicked in $257,328, and developer Eli Broad, former CEO of Sun-America, gave $100,000. In 2009 lightning struck when California Republican Abel Maldonado agreed to a budget deal in exchange for placement of Proposition 14, changing California's runoff primary to a top-two primary, on the ballot (it passed in June 2012). By 2011 it had taken in enough money to treat California legislators to a ritzy five-day Maui vacation conference, funded by "50 big companies such as Pacific Gas & Electric, Chevron, cigarette maker Altria, Southern California Edison, and big labor groups like the powerful state prison guards union," which gave $220,000 to Peace - its second-highest contribution of the year - plus an additional $100,000 to help pay for the Maui junket. No labor groups other than the prison guard union seem to be contributors to this secretive group. At the conference, lobbyists including donors to Peace's IVP mingled freely with mostly Democratic legislators.

It recently sent out a survey to decline-to-state voters in California's CA-10, CA-26, and CA-52. Why those races?

The logic of CA-26 is easy to understand: former moderate Republican Linda Parks declared her independence just before the filing deadline, and is now running on a platform of disclosing her taste in ice cream (Rocky Road) but not her vote for Speaker of the House.

In CA-10, Chad Condit (son of Gary Condit) is running against GOP incumbent Jeff Denham and Democratic, charismatic astronaut Jose Hernandez. Condit's only hope of making it on the ballot would be name recognition by people who don't remember WHY his father was famous.

CA-52 has a contentious race between Democrats Scott Fletcher and Lori Saldana for the right to face off against Brian Bilbray. Ostensibly the IVP is interested in no-chance independent Jack Doyle, but astute San Diego Reader reporter Matt Potter has speculated that Peace may be preparing groundwork for a run as an independent. In which case the IVP is nothing more than a very fancy vanity project.

Oddly, the IVP isn't surveying voters in CA-08, where Anthony Adams shed his Republican label.

Which brings up a second question: why put so much effort into educating independents? Of course, getting voters of all political persuasions to the polls is a worthy goal. "Good governance" groups fall into two classes: purely disinterested idealists and those with some sort of agenda, hidden or otherwise. Here, facts suggest that the IVP is squarely in the second camp.

A sharp-eyed Kossack has already caught the IVP using the same mailing address as "Yes on 16," a 2010 ballot initative funded almost solely by Pacific Gas & Electric whose sole purpose was to eliminate PG&E's competition from public cooperative utilities. By a strange coincidence, the president of IVP is David Takashima, a former PG&E director of government affairs.  A quick perusal of the IVP's companion site Independent Voter Network on "energy and water" shows articles of the kind a PG&E director and Chevron would approve, bemoaning passionate environmentalists and fretting that California's renewable power standard might be too ambitious.

In 2010, the IVP mailed independent voters with a GOP spin opposing taxes on health care. Among IVP's board of directors is Dan Howle, Director of State Government Relations for Lilly USA. And the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturing Association helped pay for the Maui junket.

Rather than a truly independent group, the IVP appears to be a smokescreen for corporate interests. The idea seems to be to gain hard-to-reach voters' trust by sending surveys to lure them to its website, then educating and empowering them to vote, then telling them how to vote. Peace may honestly have the voters' best interests at heart - if so, he'll disclose his group's corporate contributors - but somehow I doubt that Chevron, Big Tobacco, and Big Pharma do. Instead, the IVP should be renamed the Corporate Voters Project, or perhaps the Feudal Voters Project, for encouraging voters to aid corporations far more wealthy than them. The Independent Voters Project is no more independent than Linda Parks, a Republican for the last 16 years and admirer of Olympia Snowe.

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