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Voters split on Arizona law

California voters are closely divided over the crackdown on illegal immigration in Arizona, with sharp splits along lines of ethnicity and age, according to a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll.

Overall, 50% of registered voters surveyed said they support the law, which compels police to check the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally, while 43% oppose it. That level of support is lower than polls have indicated nationwide.

But attitudes among the state’s voters are not uniform. Strong majorities of white voters and those over 50 support the Arizona law, while Latinos and those under 30 are heavily opposed.

Arizona’s adoption of the law in April stirred passions and protests across the nation, with cities, including Los Angeles, voting to boycott the state. The matter has turned into a pressure point in electoral battles, among them the Republican gubernatorial primary in California. But the poll shows that most voters, even those with ardent feelings about the measure, said they were unlikely to reject candidates based solely on their immigration stances.

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Those who oppose the law were more likely to say they would only support a candidate who agreed with them on that issue, with 1 in 3 making the Arizona law a litmus test for their vote. Supporters of the Arizona law were more likely to say they were voting on other issues.

Gina Bonecutter, 39, a Republican and fervent supporter of the Arizona measure, said she was frustrated by what she sees as unwillingness by recent immigrants to acclimate to American culture. The Laguna Hills mother and part-time educational therapist said large numbers of illegal immigrants are hurting public schools, one of the reasons she placed her four children in private school.

“What I’m seeing today is immigrants coming here, wanting us to become like Mexico, instead of wanting to become American,” she said. “That’s never going to work.”

But in the GOP primary, Bonecutter is supporting Meg Whitman, who opposes the Arizona law, instead of Steve Poizner, who supports it. Poizner has made his support of the law a defining issue in the race, but among his supporters only 9% said they chose the candidate because of his immigration stance.

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With the state’s finances in dire straits, Bonecutter said Whitman’s business background is more important.

On the other side of the issue, Daisy Vidal, 23, of Banning said Arizona’s law will lead to racial profiling and she would never vote for a politician who supported it. A registered Democrat, Vidal is a first-generation American, born after her family immigrated to the United States legally in the mid-1980s.

“There should be some type of pathway to citizenship,” said the Cal State San Bernardino student. “This whole country was started by immigrants.”

The survey of 1,506 registered voters was conducted between May 19 and 26 for The Times and the University of Southern California College of Letters, Arts and Sciences by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the Republican firmA American Viewpoint. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 2.6 percentage points for the overall sample and slightly larger for smaller breakdowns.

The survey also showed a notable shift in how California voters view offshore oil drilling. The BP oil spill that has sent millions of gallons of crude gushing into the Gulf of Mexico dominated headlines during the polling period, and voters by a 48%-41% ratio opposed new drilling off the coast.

That marks a reversal from recent years, when California voters reeling from rising gasoline prices had favored new drilling. The opposition marks a return to Californians’ long-standing position, which dates to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that etched images of dead birds and fouled beaches into residents’ collective memories.

Bernard West, 74, a registered Republican, said the catastrophe in the Gulf, where the government and BP have been unable to stop the deep-water oil spill for more than a month, shows what’s at stake.

“If we had a similar situation here, it would be devastating,” said the retired accountant from Petaluma, north of San Francisco.

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Geography played a role in voters’ attitudes toward drilling. A majority of those who, like West, live in counties near the coast opposed new drilling, while 52% of those who live in inland counties supported it.

David Russell, a registered Democrat from West Point, about 60 miles east of Sacramento, said increasing domestic oil production is vital to the nation’s security.

“The less that we buy oil from foreign countries and depend upon them, the better off we are,” said the 64-year-old retired engineer.

One subject that voters overwhelmingly agreed upon, across party, race, age and geography, was their support for the open-primary measure on the June ballot. If Proposition 14 is approved, candidates from all parties would run during a primary open to all registered voters, and the top two vote-getters would battle it out in the general election.

A similar measure was approved by the state’s voters several years ago but was struck down in court. This time, the measure has been tailored to meet legal objections. The state’s major political parties are against the measure, but unlike previous times the idea has been up for a vote, they have not spent significant funds opposing it.

About 52% of voters support the measure, while 28% oppose it. Support is particularly high among voters who declined to align with a political party, such as Cheryl Santos, a 47-year-old market researcher from Los Altos in Santa Clara County.

The current system results in extremists winning party nominations and leads to a “paralyzing” partisanship in Sacramento, Santos said. That partisanship has led to the state’s inability to deal with its fiscal crises, she added.

“Both sides are just digging in. No one compromises on anything anymore,” she said. “It will help make the candidates more moderate.”

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Those who oppose Proposition 14 note that the current primary system ensures that each party is represented in the general election. If Proposition 14 passes, the Democrats’ voting edge in California would mean that other parties will lose their voice, said Roberta Houston of San Diego.

“We’d have two Democrats running against each other,” said the 70-year-old Republican and retired teacher. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

seema.mehta@latimes.com


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