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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

June Ballot Bustin' Out All Over

Blanket primary means the longest list of candidates ever. Officials are scrambling for ways to help voters get through it.

March 22, 1998|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Election officials have a message for California voters: Get ready for the longest primary election ballot in the state's history on June 2.

In California's first-ever "blanket" primary, voters will be able to select among all candidates from all parties and will confront a vast array of choices--19 for governor alone.

Toss in an estimated 16 candidates for U.S. senator, add more than 100 seeking statewide offices, include congressional, legislative, local and school races, and what emerges is one heck of a long ballot that officials fear may prove overwhelming.

Conny McCormack, the Los Angeles County registrar of voters, recorder and county clerk, has been wrestling with trying to list all the candidates on one ballot sheet, and she said the change will be dramatic for voters.

She likened it to switching grocery stores. "You used to shop at the corner market, and now you're going to the mega-food store. This is a new freedom," she said.

No longer will Democrats nominate only Democrats, Republicans choose only Republicans and other political parties pick their own finalists for the November runoff. Under the new rules, everybody can vote in everybody else's election, for one candidate in each race.

McCormack said that at least 796 candidates have qualified for various offices in Los Angeles County and others are still struggling in court cases to get onto the roster.

"We don't know yet who is on our ballot and who is off," she said last week. "We've never had this much of a challenge."

Election officials throughout the state said the length of the ballot will test voters' forbearance. "The longer the ballot, the less the patience," said Gail Pallerin, elections manager for Santa Cruz County.

To assist voters, local election officials have devised these tips:

* Do your homework. Voters should study the candidates and issues, mark their sample ballots in advance and take them to the election booth as a reference guide.

* Consider using a mail-in ballot. Voters can order this increasingly popular version and fill it out at home, where they can take their time in making their choices.

* Skip any issues you're not comfortable voting on, and move on to the next race. "It is OK to not vote on certain offices or propositions that you don't feel you want to vote on," Pallerin said.

In Los Angeles County, where 3.7 million people are registered to vote, McCormack's computer technicians have been stretching and pulling prototype ballots to accommodate all the races on a single ballot card.

"We've had to reprogram everything with every possible scenario," she said, noting that 142 slightly different ballots will go before the county's voters, depending on where they live.

McCormack said she expects to learn Monday whether the county's traditional single ballot with 312 punch holes will be adequate or whether a second card may have to be added in some of the 5,000 precincts.

Similar ballot-stretching exercises have been occurring statewide. Most local officials believe that their voting systems can handle the extraordinary ballot, said Janice Atkinson, assistant registrar for Sonoma County and chairwoman of a special blanket primary committee of the state county clerks association.

Elections officials said most counties can easily add another card to their ballots because their data processing systems can handle them. But the task is tougher in Los Angeles County, where McCormack's data processing equipment is 30 years old.

"Going to a second card--the system never conceived of that," she said.

McCormack said the second card may be necessary in some precincts to provide space for members of various parties' county central committees, among the most obscure partisan offices in California. Electing local central committee members is the only exception to the otherwise generic nature of the blanket primary ballot.

Under the law, only members of a political party can vote for county central committee members of the same party. If someone votes in another party's central committee election, the vote in that race will not be counted.

McCormack said some voters may be puzzled to discover partisan central committee elections on a ballot that had been advertised as generic.

To minimize confusion on that issue and others, McCormack turned to a voter-friendly device, the graphic illustration. She said every sample ballot will include an Uncle Sam cartoon figure who will demonstrate the old primary system and the new one.

"We're all hopeful it will help clarify this complexity to the voters," she said.

As for cost, a sample of election officials contacted by The Times said they believe that the blanket primary will cost about the same as previous primaries, and that there may be a a slight saving in printing costs because of the consolidation of candidates on one ballot.

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