Make no mistake, the fall election season began on the evening of June 3, just as soon as the primary election polls closed. But no one has spent much on the election since then, nor has the vast majority of voters focused on any issues to be decided in November.
This will change in a month or so, when the campaign gets underway semi-officially during the Labor Day holiday weekend.
When it does, three things will be certain:
• Many more voters will turn out this fall than cast primary ballots.
• Even though the fall campaign features just seven propositions, including four in the initiative and referendum category of popularly placed proposals, two or three of them will be election centerpieces and spending records will be set.
• Democrats will be favored in every statewide contest, even for controller, where the leading primary vote-getter was Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin. Things are likely to turn out just as expected, too.
These three items may not seem tightly linked, but they definitely are.
The presence of the initiatives and referendum on the ballot will attract far more voters than the record-low turnout of almost two months ago. That's precisely what Democrats in the Legislature planned in 2011, voting overwhelmingly to place all propositions qualified via voter signatures onto the November ballot, keeping June initiative-free. They wanted more voters at the polls in November, when they mostly compete against Republicans, rather than have the big numbers come out for the intra-party fratricide of the top-two primary.
The likely result of those machinations and the higher turnout they will produce is that Democrats stand to take all statewide offices.
Republicans feared just this when initiatives and referenda were removed from the June ballot. At the time, state Sen. Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga, then the Republican leader in the Senate, called the measure "game-playing."
But Gov. Jerry Brown, somehow keeping a straight face, said it was really about getting more voters involved in key decisions. He noted that in 2010, the last general election not including a presidential race, 10.3 million Californians voted in November, compared with just 5.7 million in that year's primary.
With Democrats holding a large plurality among registered voters, the more people participate in the fall, the better Democrats figure to do. That's especially important for the only two Democrats who had close races last June. Yes, Democratic Board of Equalization member Betty Yee squeaked into November by just 400 votes over former Democratic Assembly Speaker John Perez and will have to make up ground on Swearengin, who finished a few percentage points ahead of both Democrats.
A bigger turnout is also important for Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, who barely won a primary plurality over Republican academic Pete Peterson.
The one ballot measure figuring to draw the most voter attention — and special interest money — will be Proposition 45, an attempt to place health insurance rates under the same kind of regulation by the state insurance commissioner as auto and property insurance now get. This one is strongly backed by the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group, whose founder Harvey Rosenfield wrote the 1988 Proposition 108 that created the current insurance regulations.
Expect that one to draw more than $40 million, the bulk from insurance companies fighting it.
Also of high interest will be Proposition 48, a referendum placed on the ballot by a combination of anti-gambling groups and existing Indian casinos. This one would overturn two gaming compacts setting up the state's first off-reservation casinos.
Expect heavy interest, too, in the Proposition 43 water bond, if Brown and legislators can agree on its precise content. Figuring to be little understood by many voters is Proposition 44, which would make permanent a rainy-day fund to cover potential state budget shortfalls.
Two other initiatives will also draw heavy investment, as trial lawyers seek to increase current maximum medical practice judgments and liberal groups try to reduce some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
No one yet knows how all these issues will come out, but for sure they will interest far more voters than the boring June primary, exactly as the Democrats planned.
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about state issues. Email him at [email protected].