The ‘top-two’ primary system and legal challenges to redrawn districts have created much uncertainty. But experts say the new election environment will help keep officeholders and candidates on their toes.

By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times
December 26, 2011

Ask most people what’s significant about Dec. 30 and you may get a puzzled look. But politics junkies know that’s the official start of California’s next election season.

It opens on a markedly altered stage, set with a new primary system and different voting districts. Lingering uncertainties about some of those districts, thanks to a federal lawsuit and a possible state referendum aimed at overturning them, are adding to the drama.

Not since term limits for state offices took effect in the mid-1990s have California politicians faced such risks to their careers.

“There are more wild cards in the 2012 elections than we’ve seen” in nearly two decades, said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political scientist.

Friday is the first day candidates for legislative and congressional races can take out papers to run. But given the new wrinkles in the state election system, hundreds of candidates started raising money and campaigning months ago, some even before the redistricting commission finished the new political maps.

“There’s been a lot of work done [by candidates] trying to strategically position themselves into a district,” said consultant Paul Mitchell, who advises politicians on redistricting. To some, early announcements seemed “like a big advantage.”

But there are still opportunities for those who hadn’t made up their minds so soon, he added: “We still see some people running around looking for districts, and we still have some retirements and [contest] shifts to go.”

Those who wish to collect nomination signatures rather than pay a filing fee to get on the June primary ballot have until Feb. 23 to do so. After that, the filing period ends March 9 for most races.

In the new “top-two” primary, the first- and second-place finishers, regardless of political party, will go head to head in November. Candidates may state on the ballot that they belong to a state-recognized political party or that they have “no party preference.”

That change and the new voting districts, drawn for the first time by a citizens group instead of by lawmakers protecting incumbents, were promoted as ways to help end partisan gridlock. The combination, proponents said, would lead to more competitive races, produce more moderate officeholders and reduce the extremism that has bedeviled Sacramento and Washington.

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