January 23, 2008 - Heated contests motivate voters
Paper: Argus, The ( Fremont-Newark, CA)
Title: Heated contests motivate voters
Date: January 23, 2008
Author: Lisa Vorderbrueggen, STAFF WRITER
California voters lacked enthusiasm in past presidential primaries but experts say hotly contested races on both party tickets could ignite turnout in the Feb. 5 election. "I think we're going to have unprecedented turnout," said University of San Francisco political science professor James Taylor. "For the first time, the selection of the presidential primary nominees comes into play in California."
It's the earliest in the presidential primary process that Californians have ever voted and a big win here could prove pivotal. California's delegate prize adds up to nearly a quarter of what a Democrat needs to win the party's nomination and 14 percent of the Republican total.
California is among 24 states with primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5, when the top Republican and Democrat could emerge with enough delegates to secure their respective nominations.
"Anything that gives people a sense that their votes will make a difference is going to push turnout,"said pollster Mark Baldessare with the Public Policy Institute of California. "We didn't expect much of a turnout in the 2003 (gubernatorial recall) election, and voters proved us wrong."
But no one should expect a New Hampshire-style outpouring where 63 percent of its voters cast ballots on Jan. 8, said California Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland.
He predicts a 50 to 53 percent turnout in California if the race remains competitive in the next several weeks. Turnout in the past five California presidential primaries ranged from 44 to 54 percent.
" New Hampshire has had the first primary in the nation since 1920," said Mulholland, who traveled there to witness the contest Jan. 8. "It's in their genes."
Unlike California, it's also a small state where candidates can afford to court almost every voter with mailers, TV ads, phone calls and personal appearances.
A change in the rules for California Republicans may produce a higher turnout among their members, too.
The state GOP dumped its winner-take-all delegate allocation system and will instead hand out the bulk of its delegates based on the winners of each of the state's 53 congressional districts.
This means that districts with relatively few Republicans, such as San Francisco, offer the same number of delegates as those in GOP-dominated areas, such as Orange County.
GOP spokesman Hector Barajas lives in a heavily Democratic Los Angeles congressional district but says he's received for the first time phone calls and mail from the campaigns of Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.
If voters do swamp the polls, Alameda County election officials say they will have plenty of ballots, and they do not anticipate any equipment woes. Some New Hampshire precincts ran out of ballots, and voting machines malfunctioned in South Carolina.
Unlike counties elsewhere, such as Riverside and San Diego, which have changed voting systems to meet new requirements for the use of paper-based ballots, the East Bay will use machines familiar to voters and election staff.
County election offices routinely print enough ballots to accommodate every registered voter except those who receive their ballots in the mail.
"Will Alameda County be ready? Absolutely," said Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave McDonald. "We've used a paper-based voting system for the past two major elections, and I'm comfortable that we won't have any major problems."
The bigger potential for delay statewide may be the growing number of voters who prefer to cast their ballots by mail. The percentage has been rising steadily and in some recent local elections, more people voted by mail than at the polls.
Some observers say closely contested races leading up to Feb. 5 may prompt voters to hold onto their ballots until the last minute in anticipation of new information coming out about the candidates.
Ballots that arrive by mail or hand on Election Day or the day before may not be counted for several days. They require far more handling by staff than ballots cast at the polls. In November 2006, about one in five ballots statewide was uncounted Election Night.
But there's no evidence yet that voters are holding back. McDonald and Contra Costa County Registrar of Voters Steve Weir report a steady flow of mail-in ballots into their offices and no obvious lag.
As of Monday, Weir reported that Contra Costa voters had returned nearly a quarter of the mail-in ballots issued. Almost half of Contra Costa County's 470,000 registered voters, or 46 percent, requested to vote by mail.
Lisa Vorderbrueggen covers politics. Read her blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/insidepolitics
Record Number: 8052472
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