June 2, 2014

It's Election Day: Fresno County voters face key decisions

The ballot is full of candidates and measures, but will voters turn out? Experts think few will cast ballots.

It's primary Election Day, and with it comes a voluminous ballot with lots of decisions for voters. Anyone who has cast a mail ballot over the past month already knows this.

But while it's decision day across California, not a lot of people are expected to participate. In fact, there will be substantially more non-voters than voters in today's primary.

Statewide, the total might beat the historic low turnout of 28.2%, and it's not expected to be much higher in the Valley.

Even though the turnout is expected to be low, big decisions will be made in the election.

ELECTION 2014: Read The Bee's coverage of crucial races and issues

The Fresno County District Attorney's Office could possibly change leaders after 12 years under Elizabeth Egan. The balance of power could be at stake on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, depending on who gets in the November runoff. And all Fresno County voters get to weigh in on whether Assessor-Recorder Paul Dictos -- who has angered some in the agricultural community with his property-value decisions -- should get a second term.

"There's a lot of implications," Fresno State political science professor Jeff Cummins said. "Still, even in what seem to be significant local races, you just won't get that much turnout. I think it's going to be abysmally low. I haven't seen anything to suggest otherwise."

VOTER GUIDE: Learn about the candidates and their stands on key issues

Voters have many opportunities to determine public policy in a variety of races.

A voter living west of Highway 99 in the 3500 block of West Garland in Fresno will weigh in on 24 contests, including the highly charged district attorneys showdown between Egan and challenger Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp, the District 1 Fresno County supervisor race to replace Phil Larson and the District 1 Fresno City Council battle to replace Blong Xiong, who is termed out.

In total, there are 39 contests on Fresno County's ballot -- everything from governor to state controller, which features Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, to local school bonds -- though not every county resident will vote on every race.

Residents in Parlier will decide a police and fire tax that requires a two-thirds majority to pass. Four school districts have bond issues on the ballot. One of those -- the Pine Ridge Elementary Bond -- only has 669 registered voters. Most school bonds need a 55% majority for approval.

In Tulare County, Porterville voters will decide on more than a dozen city charter amendments in addition to county, state and federal races. Madera County will take the first steps toward a new sheriff to replace John Anderson, who is retiring.

City and county races will end today if there are two candidates, or if a hopeful in the multi-candidate race can win more than 50% of the vote. Otherwise, the top two finishers move on to November.

At the state level, Republicans Tim Donnelly and Neel Kashkari have received most of the attention in the governor's race -- almost more than Gov. Jerry Brown, the incumbent Democrat who is seeking re-election. But there are 15 gubernatorial hopefuls in total.

After today, only two will remain.

Brown is all but guaranteed to be one of them, with Donnelly and Kashkari likely fighting for the second spot on the November ballot. Many mainstream Republicans say if Donnelly, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration who has made some controversial comments on race issues, is the challenger, it could hurt the party not only in November, but in its effort to regain its traction with the state's voters.

"Most people now realize it would be a total disaster," longtime state political analyst and former Republican legislative aide Tony Quinn said of Donnelly making the November runoff.

There are indications that Kashkari may have caught Donnelly, but Quinn didn't know if it was too late because voters have been casting ballots for a month.

A Donnelly win, Quinn said, would "definitely seriously endanger" both state Sen. Andy Vidak and Rep. David Valadao, both Hanford Republicans who are up for re-election. Both races will be decided in November.

Besides governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, controller, treasurer, attorney general, insurance commissioner and state superintendent of public instruction are also up for grabs, with between three and eight candidates in each contest.

Besides Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Kamala Harris, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson are seeking re-election.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen and Controller John Chiang are termed out. Chiang is running for treasurer.

Though she has to finish in the top two of the state controller's race to move on to November, Swearengin is already touted by many experts as the Republicans' best chance to win a statewide office in November. Five others are on the ballot, but Assembly Speaker Emeritus John Pérez and state Board of Equalization member Betty Yee -- both Democrats -- are considered her main competition for the job.

Swearengin will start her day talking with people at the Chicken Pie Shop in the Tower District. She'll then hit various locations after the polls close.

At the state and congressional level, the top two finishers regardless of political party move on to November. Even if there are only two candidates, the ultimate winner still won't be decided until November.

That means in the 14th state Senate run, for instance, Vidak, the incumbent, and Fresno Democrat Luis Chavez, the Democrat, will have what amounts to a practice run today. They'll do it for real in November.

When all the votes are counted in the controller's race, it is expected that Swearengin will move on to November against either Pérez or Yee.

There's also two statewide initiatives -- both put on the ballot by the state Legislature. Neither is expected to drive up voter turnout, as initiatives sometimes can, Cummins said.

Proposition 41 would redirect $600 million in bond money from a home-buying program to funding for apartments and housing for homeless veterans.

Prop. 42 would make it law that local governments comply with open records and open meeting laws -- even if the state isn't reimbursing them.

Locally, Measure A -- which needs a two-thirds majority for approval -- would renew for another 10 years Fresno County's vehicle abatement program and the vehicle registration fees that fund it, which is $1 per vehicle and an additional $2 for certain commercial vehicles.

The money is for abatement and removal of abandoned, wrecked, dismantled or inoperative vehicles.

As of Monday afternoon, Fresno County had received 53,164 of the 195,136 vote-by-mail ballots it issued -- which is a 27.2% return rate. The total is just 12.9% of the county's 412,181 registered voters.

Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth said those ballots are ready to be counted when the polls close at 8 p.m. They will be followed by ballots cast at the polls today. Starting Wednesday, her staff will then start working through the absentee ballots issued or turned in on Election Day, as well as any provisional ballots.

"We're dialed in," Orth said.

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