Voters Seem to Enjoy Chance 'to Shop Around'


Bob Raymond is a registered Republican, has been for 50 years. He joined the GOP just after World War II, when a buddy advised him that Republicans "have all the money and all the beautiful women."

Raymond has no desire to become a Democrat, but there have been times, in primaries past, when the Sacramento retiree didn't like the choices the Grand Old Party served up.

On Tuesday, his dilemma was resolved with the debut of California's new blanket primary, an anything-goes system that allows voters to choose candidates of any and all political persuasions.

Raymond, 75, took full advantage: "I picked a lot of Democrats," he said, confessing that he has grown more liberal with age. "I liked the freedom to shop around."

In Simi Valley, Sharon Johnson, 57, agreed: "I don't like to vote for the party, but for the person." A Democrat, she bypassed her party's six offerings for governor and cast her ballot for Republican Dan Lungren instead.

Reports from across the state suggest that Raymond and Johnson were more adventurous than many. But even those who did not bolt from their party were loudly enthusiastic about the plethora of choices afforded by the new primary system.

Nearly three in five people said they liked being able to vote for the best candidates, regardless of party, a Los Angeles Times exit poll found. Fewer than 10% of voters said they found the new ballots too long or confusing.

By early evening, turnout was running ahead of the 1994 gubernatorial primary--by more than 2% in Los Angeles County and by more than 5% in Orange County--although it was unclear if the less restrictive voting procedure brought out more people.

Created two years ago by the passage of Proposition 198, the blanket primary is the most radical overhaul in California elections in 40 years.

Under the old system, a primary voter could choose only among candidates from his or her party. Those who declined to state a party preference were all but disenfranchised in the primary, ineligible to vote in partisan races such as those for governor, Congress and the U.S. Senate.

The new system--used by only three other states--gives California the least restrictive primary balloting method in the country. Proponents of the change said it would offer voters a multitude of choices and spur higher turnout on election day.

There were a multitude of choices Tuesday--a whopping 17 candidates from seven parties in the governor's race alone. Indeed, some voters, such as Alice Riaboff of San Francisco, found the sheer numbers stupefying--and couldn't fathom what motivated all those wannabes to make a run for the state's top job.

"Is it the perks of the office?" wondered Riaboff, 87, who voted early so she could give her more elderly friends a ride to the polls.

As for turnout, Secretary of State Bill Jones said that by midafternoon, voter participation was running slightly ahead of that for the last gubernatorial primary in 1994.

"It's a beautiful day in California, and that always brings people out," he said. Though final numbers were yet to be tallied, Jones was sticking by his prediction that 42% of the state's registered voters would make the trek to the polls.

That figure would make the 1998 turnout the highest in a California primary election in 16 years. Jones credits the blanket primary in part, but also says the jump in turnout relates to statistical factors.

In the past two years, county registrars have removed so-called deadwood--duplicate names and those of deceased or ineligible voters--from their rolls. By shrinking voter totals by 750,000 people statewide, registrars automatically increased the percentage of eligible voters who participate.

Those who chose to speak their minds at the polls appeared to show up well-prepared, perhaps anticipating the long ballot and daunting array of choices. Most came with their sample ballots marked up, and many brought campaign fliers or other material to guide them into the voting booth.

Poll workers said the long, complex ballot--cluttered not just by large numbers of candidates, but also by a bevy of weighty propositions--meant voters took more time than usual.

"We had one guy that grew old in there," said election volunteer Melissa Payton in Costa Mesa. "It took him about 45 minutes. He gave it a lot of thought."

In Pasadena, Caltech biologist Elizabeth Bertani, 66, said the lengthy ballot could overwhelm even the most dedicated voter: "I have a PhD, and it's a real job," she said.

To ease the stress, many Californians--a record number in Los Angeles County--requested absentee ballots this year. Mike McLaughlin, a contracting engineer in Pasadena, said he opted to vote absentee so he wouldn't have to rush.

"I sat at home and looked over it for 25 or 30 minutes," said McLaughlin, 43.

Although election officials around the state reported few serious snafus, there was some confusion sparked by the new balloting system.

At a polling place in the Venice High School auditorium, tattoo artist Alfredo Alvear said he went into the booth with the wrong idea about the new rules. In a blanket primary, the highest vote-getters from each party will go on to face one another in the fall.

"I thought I was going to get to pick my favorite Republican, my favorite Democrat," said Alvear, 33.

Elsewhere, some voters were baffled by ballots that listed the names of candidates for each party's county central committee.

Written instructions said to punch only the names of candidates from a given voter's own party, but some citizens were confused and voted outside their party. Those who did had their central committee choices--but not the entire ballot--thrown out, according to Los Angeles County election officials.

Before the vote, party leaders criticized the blanket primary, warning that it invited mischief making. Specifically, they fretted that a Democrat, say, might vote for the weakest Republican in a given race in order to enhance Democratic prospects in the fall final.

Pasadena schoolteacher Christina Escovar, 27, worried about such sabotage as well, suspecting that Republicans--knowing Lungren was a shoo-in--would cast ballots for the weakest Democrat.

"If people voted in good faith, I would think [the blanket primary] is a good process, but I don't think they always do," Escovar said. "Maybe I'm a conspiracy theorist, but I think people will do that."

Voters interviewed by The Times, however, admitted no such intentions.

"To me, that's playing politics," said Sacramento building contractor James McDaniel, 31. "If I did that, my vote wouldn't be an honest reflection of my beliefs."

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