The California state Capitol in Sacramento. Friday is the first day that… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Ask most people what's significant about Dec. 30 and you may get a puzzled look. But politics junkies know that's the official start of California's next election season.
It opens on a markedly altered stage, set with a new primary system and different voting districts. Lingering uncertainties about some of those districts, thanks to a federal lawsuit and a possible state referendum aimed at overturning them, are adding to the drama.
Not since term limits for state offices took effect in the mid-1990s have California politicians faced such risks to their careers.
"There are more wild cards in the 2012 elections than we've seen" in nearly two decades, said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political scientist.
Friday is the first day candidates for legislative and congressional races can take out papers to run. But given the new wrinkles in the state election system, hundreds of candidates started raising money and campaigning months ago, some even before the redistricting commission finished the new political maps.
"There's been a lot of work done [by candidates] trying to strategically position themselves into a district," said consultant Paul Mitchell, who advises politicians on redistricting. To some, early announcements seemed "like a big advantage."
But there are still opportunities for those who hadn't made up their minds so soon, he added: "We still see some people running around looking for districts, and we still have some retirements and [contest] shifts to go."
Those who wish to collect nomination signatures rather than pay a filing fee to get on the June primary ballot have until Feb. 23 to do so. After that, the filing period ends March 9 for most races.
In the new "top-two" primary, the first- and second-place finishers, regardless of political party, will go head to head in November. Candidates may state on the ballot that they belong to a state-recognized political party or that they have "no party preference."
That change and the new voting districts, drawn for the first time by a citizens group instead of by lawmakers protecting incumbents, were promoted as ways to help end partisan gridlock. The combination, proponents said, would lead to more competitive races, produce more moderate officeholders and reduce the extremism that has bedeviled Sacramento and Washington.
But voters, who approved both new systems, may be disappointed if they expect significantly more competition between the main parties, experts say. That's partly because Democrats account for nearly half of the voters in California, and there are too few Republicans to compete in many areas.
Another factor is what Mitchell calls "residential sorting." Like-minded voters tend to live in the same areas. Liberal Democrats cluster in urban centers, and conservative Republicans tend to dominate in more rural areas.
Still, it wouldn't take many more swing districts to change the dynamic in Sacramento, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former Republican advisor.
Even a dozen or so competitive districts in the 120-member Legislature "can create some common ground that makes it easier for the two parties to work together," Schnur said.
He and other politics experts agreed that the unknown factors in the new election environment will help keep officeholders and candidates on their toes.
"The combination of redistricting and the open primary is going to produce unpredictability, and politicians faced with unpredictability tend to be nervous politicians," Schnur said. "And nervous politicians tend to be responsive politicians.
"Regardless of how either of these reforms works out in the long run, large numbers of candidates are likely to spend more time listening to voters than they have in the past.... And that's a good thing."