When Californians go to the polls Tuesday for the state primary election, they won’t find three-term Senator Dianne Feinstein running against just fellow Democrats.
New rules that may alter the political landscape put Feinstein head-to-head with 23 challengers of all stripes — Republican, Libertarian, American Independent, Peace and Freedom. The two who get the most votes, regardless of party, will move on to the general election in November.
The so-called top-two system is intended to fight partisan gridlock that has paralyzed lawmakers from Sacramento to Washington. In theory, politicians will no longer be forced to stick to party dogma to avoid being ousted in the primary, allowing voters more choices.
“The rules of the game have changed,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a Sacramento-based nonpartisan group that has advocated for open democracy. “Democrats and Republicans no longer have a lock on the process.”
The new procedure, passed in 2009 by the California Legislature and approved by 54 percent of voters a year later, was backed by a strange-bedfellow coalition that included then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and Democrat Willie Brown, the former San Francisco mayor who was speaker of the Assembly for 15 years.
Similar systems are in place in Louisiana and the state of Washington, and there are efforts to make it law in Arizona. California’s new rules apply to the candidates for the legislature, Congress and statewide elected offices.
The top-two primary may mean that in heavily Democratic or Republican districts, two candidates from the same party could advance to the general election. That may be influenced by independent voters, who make up 20 percent of the electorate, and will be new to the system.
That may force Democrats and Republicans toward more moderate positions, Alexander said.
“Up until now, they have had no say in the primaries,” she said of the independents. “If some of those folks get elected we could see an impact in the power struggle in the Statehouse.”
With the primary looming, California lawmakers have withheld action on the state’s resurgent $15.7 billion budget deficit. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, blamed legislators for making the deficit larger by failing to pass some budget cuts he sought in March.
“They won’t make a budget decision until after June 6,” the day after the election, California Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, said in an interview. “This is a bad idea. The know they have to make cuts and the cuts are unpopular and if you are Democrats, who have to write the budget, this just paralyzes them.”
Voters will also be asked whether to add $1 to the tax on a pack of cigarettes, raising the levy to $1.87, and steer the extra revenue toward cancer research and stop-smoking programs.
Opponents led by Altria Group and Reynolds American, the parent of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, the two biggest sellers in the U.S., raised more than $40.7 million to fight the measure, compared with about $10 million from supporters including the American Cancer Society and cycling champion Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor.
The cigarette-tax measure, known as Proposition 29, was supported by 50 percent to 42 percent, with 8 percent undecided, in a Field Poll released May 31. The telephone survey of 608 likely voters, conducted May 21-29, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
Voters also will be asked to reduce the total number of years a lawmaker can serve, from 14 to 12, in either the Senate or the Assembly. Currently, a legislator can serve a maximum of six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate. The proposition would permit all 12 years to be served in either chamber.
The term-limit proposition was favored 50 percent to 28 percent, with 22 percent undecided, in the same Field Poll.
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