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California Governor’s Race Puts New Primary Voting to the Test

June 2 (Bloomberg) -- Californians will choose candidates for governor tomorrow for the first time using a primary election system that ignores labels such as Democrat or Republican and sends the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to the November ballot.

Voters could previously pick any candidate in any race, but only one from each party advanced to the general election. In a top-two primary, all voters get a say in which two candidates reach the finals. The system, used in only two other states, is intended to encourage candidates away from the political extremes, to avoid the polarization that partially shut down the U.S. government last year.

The system in the most-populous state is leading Neel Kashkari, the former U.S. Treasury official running for governor as a Republican, to appeal to independents and even some crossover Democrats to reach second place. Since January he has been polling third, behind 76-year-old Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and Tea-Party backed Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, 48. A barrage of last minute advertising pushed Kashkari into a statistical dead-heat with Donnelly in the latest University of Southern California Dornsife/Los Angeles Times pollreleased yesterday.

“The thing that surprised me is how few voters are paying attention to this race,” Kashkari, 40, said in an interview. “It’s basically going to be a Republican primary because very few independents or moderate Republicans or moderate Democrats are going to vote. It’s going to be pretty conservative Republicans and pretty liberal Democrats who show up.”

One Ballot

Only California, Washington and Louisiana require all candidates to run on one primary ballot, regardless of political party. There are efforts under way in Colorado and Montana to require top-two primary elections, though Montana’s has been challenged in court by Democrats.

Brown, seeking a fourth term, is leading by 30 percentage points in most polls and had $20.7 million cash in his campaign treasury as of May 20, according to the filings.

Among likely voters in the primary election, Brown has 50 percent of the vote, compared with 18 percent for Kashkari and 13 percent for Donnelly, with 10 percent of likely voters still undecided, according to the USC poll. The telephone poll of 1,511 registered voters from May 21-28 has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points among the likely voter sample.

Campaign Cash

Donnelly had just $70,000 of campaign cash going into the final days of the campaign. His views on issues such as immigration and race are at odds with mainstream Republicans. A gun rights advocate, he is on probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges for carrying a loaded pistol onto a commercial airline flight in 2012. He said he’d forgotten he had the gun.

A former member of a vigilante group that patrolled the U.S. Mexico border, Donnelly has likened undocumented immigrants to violent insurgents and suggested that Kashkari, a Hindu, supports radical Islamic law.

Kashkari, with $1.4 million in campaign cash as of May 22, is making his first run for public office. A former executive at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Pacific Investment Management Co., Kashkari managed the U.S. Treasury’s $700 billion bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The last Republican to win the governor’s office was movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, also a neophyte, who swept into Sacramento in 2003 on a wave of discontent over deficits and an electricity shortage.

Election Overhaul

California voters approved the top-two primary system in 2010. It was the second overhaul of state election procedures since 2008, when voters stripped lawmakers of the ability to draw their own legislative districts.

California’s top-two system was first tested in 2012 during congressional and legislative elections. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein found herself on the same ballot with 23 challengers, including five other Democrats and 14 Republicans, as well as Libertarian, American Independent and Peace and Freedom candidates.

Feinstein won 49.5 percent of the vote, while Republican Elizabeth Emken, an autism activist, came in second with 12.7 percent. Feinstein won re-election that November in a landslide.

In addition to the governor’s race, the top-two primary this year will be used to select candidates for so-called constitutional offices such as treasurer and controller.

A version of the top-two system, passed in a 1996 initiative, was tossed out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 after the California Democratic Party argued it violated their First Amendment rights.

Politically Vulnerable

Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist, says the system hasn’t moderated candidates as promised and is vulnerable to political trickery. Leading candidates can get their supporters to propel a weak candidate into second place, helping to assure victory in November.

“We are looking at a lower voter turnout,” he said. “And for all the hype about this being the be-all and end-all solution to increasing voter turnout and accelerating the independent vote, it is having the opposite effect. There seems to be no sense that any kind of independent candidate is going to break through.”

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