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California voters face redrawn ballot, new districts in Tuesday’s election

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POSTED June 3, 2012 9:28 p.m.

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — California voters will face a newly reshaped ballot with many more choices on Tuesday as they cast votes in the first statewide election to implement two major voter-approved political reforms and as candidates compete in districts meant to be more competitive.

A new top-two primary system and redrawn legislative and congressional districts are intended to blunt the heavy-handed influence of the two major political parties and produce more moderate candidates. Tuesday's election will test those assumptions.

For the first time, the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts were drawn by an independent panel of citizens, and only the top two vote-getters will advance, regardless of political party. That is likely to create several competitive and expensive contests in November, including some in which members of the same party will square off or face independents.

Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which analyzes races, said he does not expect the new system to dramatically alter the makeup of California's congressional delegation and Legislature.

"But maybe it will change the type of Democrats and type of Republicans who get elected," when candidates of the same party are forced to compete with one another, he said.

He forecasts as many as 34 congressional and legislative contests featuring candidates from the same party in November.

"We're going to have a plethora of same-party runoffs ... Most of them will be Democrats, because there are just so many more Democrats than Republicans in this state," Hoffenblum said.

Democrats continue to have the largest share of California's 17.1 million registered voters, with 43 percent, while Republican registration has slipped to 30 percent, according to state registration figures released Friday. But the fastest-growing segment of the electorate is made of voters who are not affiliated with any political party — now more than 21 percent.

Nine of the 53 congressional districts have no incumbent on the ballot, and the open seats have lured dozens of contenders, including a high-stakes contest in Northern California's 2nd Congressional District now held by departing Republican Rep. Wally Herger.

Democrats hope to pick up as many as six seats in California and have been working to register more voters, particularly in fast-growing areas of the Central Valley and Inland Empire.

Republicans lost their challenges to the newly redrawn state Senate districts, where Democrats are likely to win a supermajority. They are unlikely to cross that threshold in the Assembly, meaning they still will be unable to pass tax or fee increases without GOP votes.

Still, there are 35 Assembly seats with no incumbent, while Republican Assemblymen Tim Donnelly in San Bernardino County and Allan Mansoor in Orange County are among incumbents facing same-party challengers. Education groups have poured in nearly $2 million for and against Democrat Brian Johnson in a solidly Democratic San Fernando seat that features five same-party challengers.

The primary ballot will be unusual in another regard — the paucity of initiatives. Voters will decide just two after the Legislature passed a law saying all future initiatives must appear on the general election ballot.

On Proposition 28, voters will be asked whether they want to alter California's legislative term limits, which were approved by voters in 1990. The measure would reduce the total number of years lawmakers can serve in the Legislature from 14 to 12, but it would allow them to serve all of that in one house.

The current limits are among the strictest legislative term limits in the nation: three two-year terms in the 80-member Assembly and two, four-year terms in the 40-member Senate.

Voters also are being asked to add a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes that would help fund cancer research and anti-smoking campaigns. Opponents of Proposition 29, which is backed by cycling legend and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, have poured more than $46 million into their campaign against it, compared with $12 million in support.

Tuesday's election also is California's presidential primary. But with the GOP nominating contest all but decided, that race is an afterthought in the state with the greatest number of delegates.

With no hotly contested statewide races and no high-stakes ballot initiatives, voter turnout is expected to be low — perhaps even falling to 25 percent. Counties reported last week that more than 1.3 million absentee ballots had been returned so far, only about half the rate at the same time in the June 2008 primary.

Among the proponents of sending more moderate candidates to office is Charles Munger Jr., the wealthy physicist who sponsored and funded the redistricting campaigns. Munger, a Republican, is financing independent expenditures on behalf of a Democratic Senate candidate and two Republican Assembly candidates.

Republicans also are making runs at some incumbent Democrats. Ricky Gill, a well-financed 25-year-old, has attracted national attention in his race against Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Democrat who narrowly won his San Joaquin Valley district in 2010.

In the Central Valley, a former space shuttle astronaut and the son of former congressman Gary Condit are challenging Republican Rep. Jeff Denham. Condit lost his seat after the investigation into slain Washington intern Chandra Levy raised questions about whether he was having an affair with her.

In Ventura County, a county supervisor is hoping to be the first independent to join the state's congressional delegation.

Two Los Angeles congressional districts could provide political intrigue as current members of the Democratic delegation are locked in heated contests against one another. Reps. Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson have divided support, and Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman are locked in a bitter primary fight as they seek to finish in the top two and move on to November.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein does not face opposition from a big-name opponent.

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