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A preview of California's June 8 primary election

by Greg Lucas, published

On Tuesday June 8, Californians will help choose a new governor, consider changing the state’s election process, change the rules on how auto insurance is written, and vote for a raft of candidates for statewide office.  The problem is, the state’s voters don’t seem to care.  Predictions are for low - possibly record low - turnout.

A June 1 tweet from San Mateo County elections officials said over 1 million voted ballots have been returned to the state's elections offices -- 6.26 percent of registered voters.  Another indicator of potentially low turnout is a canvas showing that as of June 1, only 15 percent of Republican absentee voters had turned in their ballots. 

“Absentees are habitual voters. What that bodes for the election is low turnout,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media. “Voter choices come from a general feeling about their happiness with their lives. They’re not a happy group at the moment.” 

With two candidates vying for the GOP gubernatorial nomination – former eBay executive Meg Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner – the expectation would be for greater interest from Republican voters.  State GOP party officials say it will be.  “As the public continues to reject the extreme elements of the Democrats' governing agenda in both Sacramento and Washington, the California Republican Party is poised to press our advantage through an exciting primary and on to victory in November,” said Mark Standriff, the party’s communications director.

The June election is the first statewide since November 2008 when, fueled in part by President Obama’s candidacy, California had record turnout - 13.7 million voters cast ballots, 79.4 percent of registered voters. The previous state record was 12.6 million in November 2004. 

Primaries tend to have lower turnout. In June of 2008, turnout was 28.2 percent. It was 44.3 percent in March 2004, a presidential election year when turnout always runs higher.  What’s unclear is the effect the low turnout will have on the June election. Traditionally, it means the most likely Democratic and Republican voters are ones, like those who use absentee ballots, who routinely go to the polls. Those voters tend to be more conservative, more monied, older and white.

But O’Connor and others caution using those general characteristics to predict final results.  “It’s an election that’s difficult to figure out,” O’Connor said. “There are intersecting national issues like immigration. With the oil spill in the Gulf, government looks inept again. Budget numbers aren’t good. There’s no summer school for the kids. There are a lot of factors at play.”

California’s 3.4 million voters without a party preference – 20 percent of the state’s registered voters – cannot vote in the primary on partisan races without requesting either a Democratic or GOP ballot at their polling place.  It’s unclear how many will choose a Democratic ballot or a Republican one – with a contested gubernatorial race, more might go GOP – and what effect that will have on the results. 

Decline-to-state voters can vote on non-partisan races such as local supervisor or city council races, and state school superintendent of public instruction, the only non-partisan statewide office.  They can also vote on the ballot’s five propositions, which include Proposition 14 that would change the state’s election system so that the top two vote getters in the open primary would advance to the November election, regardless of party affiliation.

Supporters say the change would give decline-to-state voters – and candidates more say in the outcome of the primary.     Opponents argue campaigns would be more expensive as candidates have to appeal to broader range of voters and that minor party candidates, because of their smaller registration, would be shut out from advancing to the November runoff.

Opposition to Proposition 14 is perhaps the only thing the Democratic Party and the Republican Party agree on in June.     From Standriff of the GOP:

     “Proposition 14 (is) a deeply-flawed backroom scheme that would essentially rig elections to produce mushy candidates that are more likely to raise taxes in order to balance budgets.”

From the Official California Democratic Party slate:

     "Prop 14 will actually reduce voter choice in elections. Democratic voters in some districts may be forced to choose between voting for a Republican or not voting at all.”

A recent Public Policy institute of California poll showed 6 of 10 likely voters in favor of it.  One of the architects of the proposition, the California Independent Voter Project (CAIVP) helped create the California Independent Voter Network (CAIVN).

Abel Maldonado, a former GOP state senator from Santa Maria and now lieutenant governor, is seeking to keep the job he was appointed to in a contested primary with Sen. Sam Aanestad of Grass Valley, one of Maldonado’s former colleagues.    Maldonado made placement of Proposition 14 on the June ballot a condition of casting a “yes” vote on the February 2009 budget, which contained nearly $19 billion in temporary tax increases over two years.

The contested primary receiving the most attention is Poizner and Whitman who, combined, have spent well more than $100 million – more than four times the previous record for spending in an entire gubernatorial race.  Appealing to the GOP’s ideological base, both have tried to portray each other as the most conservative candidate, the toughest on cracking down on immigration and, in Whitman’s case, a political outsider.

The tag line on one of her recent anti-Poizner ads is: “Liberal on Taxes. Liberal on Spending. Just Another Liberal Politician.”  Poizner has battled back, chiding Whitman for spending more than two decades not being registered to vote, and the race tightened. Whitman, once ahead by 50 points, fell to close to Poizner but has since regained a comfortable lead.

In the final three weeks of May, Whitman wrote $12 million in checks to her campaign, increasing her TV ad campaign, and sending a steady stream of mailers into GOP households.  “There’s a certain amount of fatigue among voters about this barrage of ads,” O’Connor says. “In some ways, people are voting just to have it be over.”

To win statewide office in California, a gubernatorial candidate – particularly a Republican one, needs the backing of a healthy percentage of the state’s decline-to-state voters. Of the 3.4 million in the state, 1.8 million vote regularly, creating a formidable bloc that GOP candidates must court, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did in his 2006 re-election campaign.

That means whoever the Republican primary winner is June 8, they must appeal to a broader, more moderate range of voters, a significant change from their current message to republican voters.

Similarly, former Gov. Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee, will also have to make a more measured pitch in order to woo decline-to-state voters in the November election.


*  Editor's note:  for even more information on the upcoming primary election, click here.

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