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Oh no, another election already!

TONY QUINN is co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of legislative and congressional elections.

CALIFORNIANS set a record in 2002: Fewer turned out for a primary election than ever before -- just 34.6% of registered voters. Even fewer may turn out for June’s primary.

The problem is that Californians are suffering from election fatigue. This will be the fourth election in four years. Two were for governor and a third was a proxy vote for governor.

In 2002, conservative GOP candidate Bill Simon ran one of the worst general election campaigns in state history, losing to wildly unpopular Gov. Gray Davis. Voters hated the choice and wanted a second bite at the apple.

A year later, they got their chance. In a special recall election, they dumped Davis and put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor’s chair. About 60% of registered voters went to the polls in 2003, more than had voted in 2002.

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The 2004 election was something of a breather for state voters because the presidential contest was not in doubt and there was no real race for the Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara Boxer. Turnout, about 75% of the voters, was normal for a presidential election.

But just when voters thought they were safe from more campaigning, Schwarzenegger called for a special election in 2005 -- a referendum on four initiatives he said were necessary to redirect state policy. About half the voters went to the polls.

Now comes the regularly scheduled 2006 primary, and California voters are understandably exhausted.

The biggest decision on the ballot is whether Democrats prefer state Treasurer Phil Angelides or state Controller Steve Westly as their candidate for governor. Neither has stirred much political excitement, a state of affairs reflected in the relatively large number of voters still undecided. Tired voters may do what they always do when bored by politics -- stay home.

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A LOW turnout usually means an older, more conservative electorate. In 2002, nearly as many Republicans as Democrats voted despite the fact that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 1.5 million voters. If that happens in June, Proposition 82, the measure to raise income taxes on the rich to pay for universal preschool, will probably lose. Polls show voters are split on the proposal.

This primary will have one lasting effect on California politics: It will conclusively show the failure of campaign spending limits. This is the first gubernatorial election under Proposition 34, a 2000 measure that caps individual contributions to a candidate for governor at $22,300.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings have created two huge loopholes in laws limiting political spending: A wealthy candidate can spend as much as he or she wishes, and “independent” committees can spend without limit on behalf of their preferred candidates.

That’s what has happened. Westly made a fortune as an executive at EBay and has spent more than $30 million of it on his campaign. Angelides, a former Sacramento developer, is rich but not rich enough. So his patron in business for 30 years, Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, is running a multimillion-dollar “independent expenditure” on Angelides’ behalf.

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This clear circumvention of Proposition 34 is necessary because the only way to reach voters is through expensive television advertising, and that means breaking through the $22,300 limit.

So the one residue of this forgettable June primary will be the successful skirting of the intent of California’s campaign spending law. Unfortunately, the Legislature is primed to pass more spending limits. It would seem wiser to repeal the unworkable one we have rather than pile on more.

If primary elections are to mean something, there should be no major elections in the off years. Four elections in four years is not the way to get the voters’ attention.


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