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Ballots arriving by mail signal start of California primary season

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Registrars start sending mail ballots to voters Monday
Ballot includes contests for governor, secretary of state and other statewide offices
All voters choose, and only the first- and second-place finishers advance to the fall general election

California's primary season shifts into high gear Monday when county registrars start sending mail ballots to voters who want to mark their choices before election day.

The state's June 3 ballot includes contests for governor, secretary of state and other statewide offices, and for all of the state's 53 seats in the House of Representatives, all 80 in the state Assembly and 20 of those in the 40-member state Senate.

Voters also will decide two statewide ballot measures: a proposed bond to fund housing for veterans and a proposed constitutional amendment regarding public records and other governmental matters.

Los Angeles County has contests for sheriff, assessor and two members of the Board of Supervisors, a mayoral runoff in Long Beach and a special election for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District board. There are also numerous contests for Superior Court judges.

Several other jurisdictions are holding elections the same day.

The state's top-two primary system, in use for the first time two years ago, gives greater power to the growing segment of independent voters — now roughly 20% of California's registered base — by allowing them equal participation in voting that used to be mostly restricted to members of political parties.

Now all candidates, regardless of any party affiliation, appear on a single ballot. All voters choose among them, and only the first- and second-place finishers advance to the fall general election.

Voting by mail has grown dramatically in recent years — representing 65% of the balloting in the June 2012 primary, according to records of the secretary of state. In that year's November general election, 51% of ballots were cast by mail.

The trend puts pressure on campaigns to reach voters even earlier.

"There's no such thing as election day any more," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which analyzes campaigns. "Now it's election month."

Hoffenblum said candidates with enough cash for multiple political mailings send fliers starting at least a month before the election, to reach early voters, and at least once more as election day nears.

Paul Mitchell of Political Data, which tracks balloting and other election statistics, said more voters are asking to be put on the vote-by-mail rolls permanently, so they don't need to request a mail ballot at every election. In 13 California counties, his data show, the percentage of permanent mail balloters tops 60% — including rural Alpine and Sierra counties, where all voting is done by mail.

Los Angeles County lags behind the rest of the state in permanent mail voters, at 30%, Mitchell said.

Elizabeth Knox, a spokeswoman for the county Registrar-Recorder/Clerk's office, said the county will begin sending out nearly 1.4 million ballots on Monday, most of them to those on the permanent mail rolls.

Others wanting to vote by mail can request ballots through their county registrar offices. Mail applications also are included with the sample ballots that counties are sending to all voters.

The start of mail balloting comes just two weeks before the May 19 voter registration deadline.

Registration can be done online through the secretary of state at http://registertovote.ca.gov/ or through the counties, which also offer online registration. Residents must provide a California driver's license or state identification card number, the last four digits of their Social Security number and their date of birth.

Registration can be done in person at county election offices, Department of Motor Vehicles offices and at many U.S. post offices, public libraries and other government sites.

To get a paper application by mail, a resident may call a county office or the secretary of state's toll-free voter hotline, (800) 345-VOTE.

jean.merl@latimes.com

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