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Newsletter: California, here they come. It’s time for Super Tuesday

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California, you wanted a big role in America’s biggest political contest. And now you’ve got it.

More than 3 million ballots have been cast in the Golden State in advance of Tuesday’s statewide presidential primary. Expect many millions more by the time the counting is completed later this month. California is the largest election battleground in the nation — more voters, more delegates awarded in the Democratic primary than any other state.

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A brief flashback to the early spring of 2017: It was then that California lawmakers launched a new effort to move the state’s primary from June to March, undaunted by previous failed attempts at presidential relevance. “By holding our primary earlier, we will ensure that issues important to Californians are prioritized by presidential candidates from all political parties,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said at the time.

Voters will ultimately be the judge of whether that’s happened. Certainly, though, no one could foresee how contentious and unsettled the contest would be between Democrats vying to challenge President Trump by the time it was California’s turn.

Which brings us to South Carolina and then, hours later, two big shakeups.

Biden breaks through, Buttigieg and Steyer drop out

“We are very much alive,” said former Vice President Joe Biden in a fiery victory speech on Saturday after winning the Democratic primary in South Carolina on Saturday.

Biden’s showing was impressive, drawing more than twice as many votes as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. And it needed to be, after poor showings in the first three contests of the 2020 campaign. The question now dominating this race is whether this was a momentary diversion from the juggernaut of Sanders’ campaign or a sign that centrist Democrats are far from out of the race.

“This is the moment to choose the path forward for our party,” Biden said on Saturday. “The decisions Democrats make all across America in the next few days will determine what this party stands for, what we believe, and what we’ll get done.”

But the outcome in the Palmetto State held yet another surprise for the race: the departure of Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor who became a top-tier contender after winning in Iowa and placing second in New Hampshire.

“The truth is the path has narrowed to the close for our candidacy,” Buttigieg said in his suspension speech.

South Carolina was also the end of the road for Tom Steyer, the San Francisco billionaire whose first-ever run for elected office was sparked by his demand for more talk about climate change but fizzled in a field of hopefuls who largely embraced the same positions on the issue.

For his part, Biden tried to make the case on Sunday that it’s now a two-man race. The rest of the remaining field, some with better showings than the former VP in earlier contests, were having none of it.

What to watch in the California primary

We long ago dispensed with the notion that California has a single-day election, right?

For the weeks leading up to Tuesday and even through Friday — for ballots postmarked by election day — the state’s voters will make their choices known in the presidential race, 53 congressional primaries and 120 legislative primaries. Plus one statewide bond measure and some local ballot proposals thrown into the mix.

California’s votes will take weeks to count, and for good reason: Perhaps no state in the nation has as many laws on the books designed to encourage voter participation. The nation may be collectively hitting the refresh button on Tuesday night, but we’re not even likely to know how many ballots remain to be counted until late in the week.

Even so, this election stands out as something unique. Keep these items in mind as the frenzy reaches a crescendo.

  • Holding on to the ballots: California may have made it easy to vote early, but a lot ... a whole lot ... of voters in this election seem to be waiting until the last minute. About 16 million of the state’s 20.6 million voters were mailed a ballot. But tabulations from Political Data Inc., a for-profit campaign analysis company, show only 20% of those ballots had been returned as of late Sunday. Maybe those voters are undecided on the race at the top of the ticket, maybe not. And one has to wonder what Buttigieg’s decision to bow out on Sunday does in pushing some undecided voters to an eleventh-hour decision.
  • The information gap for independent voters: We’ve written many times, and elections officials have sent out many mailers, about how California’s unaffiliated “independent” may cast a ballot in the Democratic presidential primary. But it’s looking as if they simply aren’t doing so. Tabulations from Political Data show only about 10% of the “no party preference” voters who were mailed a ballot asked for one that included Democratic presidential candidates. And so once this is all said and done, we will rightly ask whether they were unaware or simply uninterested.
  • As Los Angeles goes... California’s most populous county is holding an election like none other in its history. More than 5.5 million voters in L.A. County are using a brand-new voting system while also joining 14 other counties in adopting a sweeping state election change — and it’s all happening at the same time. Redesigned ballots, fewer (but multi-day) locations to vote in person and new voting machines make Los Angeles the most important location to watch on Monday and election day. Early turnout was relatively tepid, and some 1.8 million Angelenos could show up over the final two days of in-person voting.
  • Same-day registration: In a state with numerous pro-voting laws, this statewide primary is witnessing the full roll-out of one of the most ambitious: the right for eligible citizens to register to vote all the way up to the end of voting on election day. As of last month, there were some 4.5 million Californians who were eligible but not registered. How many will take the plunge in the final hours? On a related note: We’ll also be watching total voter turnout in this election. The record for a presidential primary in California is 72.6% of registered voters, set in 1976.
  • Divvying up the delegates: This presidential primary offers a great reminder of the importance of math. Really. As I wrote recently, the Democratic presidential hopefuls are competing in 54 separate California primaries — one statewide contest and one in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts. They all operate on a rule of proportional votes, with a candidate needing at least 15% of the votes cast in each contest to win delegates. The final poll conducted for The Times by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies suggested Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren could be the only two to win delegates statewide. But former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg might find a new opening with the exit by Buttigieg. And then there’s the new attention being paid to Biden, though the poll showed weak support for both him and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Of course, we won’t know that level of detail for a few weeks.

One more note: No, you can’t have a do-over and vote again if you’re a Californian who already cast a ballot for a presidential candidate that has since dropped out.

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Super Tuesday lightning round

— The 2020 race could become the coronavirus election. Is America ready?

— Democratic presidential candidates are questioning Trump’s response to the global coronavirus outbreak and urging him, among other things, to do his “damn job.”

— Warren will announce a plan on Monday that aims to strengthen farmworkers’ rights ahead of her visit to East Los Angeles.

— Bloomberg’s shaky debate performances and fraught history with women in the workplace has sent his campaign scrambling to shore up support with a key demographic.

— Texas, which awards the second largest cache of delegates, 228, has a fluid, competitive race and will be the first big test of Biden’s ability to refute Bloomberg’s claim to be a better alternative for moderate voters who fear a Sanders victory.

— Sanders continues to raise money from small donors at a dizzying clip heading into the key Super Tuesday primaries.

— A drive from the beaches of Ventura to the outskirts of Stockton, from Democratic strongholds into Trump country and back, reveals befuddlement over the state of politics in America. There’s a common desire to come together, but no agreement on how to get there.

— In California’s 25th Congressional District, the rare open competitive seat has drawn an eclectic field of candidates — including a progressive TV star, a retired Navy pilot and businessman, and George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide who was convicted of lying to the FBI.

— Cast out by Trump, Jeff Sessions struggles in Alabama to win back his Senate seat.

Today’s essentials

— With polls showing Sanders well outpacing his rivals in California, some are hoping the grassroots fervor will translate into a deluge of votes for insurgent candidates looking to shake up the status quo at L.A. City Hall.

— Critics of California’s new law limiting the use of independent contractors, Assembly Bill 5, are pushing a variety of potential do-overs in Sacramento, some to make small revisions and others that would go as far as to repeal it.

— An environmental group filed suit last week against some of the world’s biggest food, beverage and consumer goods companies in a California court, arguing they should be held responsible for plastic packaging that is fouling the state’s oceans, rivers and streams.

— California’s largest marijuana association is in a bind after politically powerful labor unions asked Democratic politicians to “refrain from engaging with” the group at the state Capitol.

— The management of the California Lottery was sharply criticized last week by state officials, who released a scathing audit alleging that the agency shortchanged schools by millions of dollars over the last four years.

— A pair of hotly debated new California laws limiting which schoolchildren can skip vaccines appears stuck in bureaucratic limbo, the result of uncertainty over how to interpret last-minute changes made before the legislation was signed last year by Newsom.

— First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom told anti-vaccine protesters rallying outside her Sacramento-area home that her husband’s administration is looking into their concerns about California’s new vaccine laws, while also saying she believes there needs to be more dialogue about whether some immunizations are unnecessary.

— Plant yourself, save the planet: A Los Angeles lawmaker wants California to allow for human composting, an eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial or cremation.

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