LOS ANGELES — California’s statewide primary election was marked Tuesday by light turnout at polling sites and few problems flagged by election officials even as the state tested out some sweeping changes.
The primary was providing the first statewide run on a top-two voting system and newly redrawn legislative and congressional districts. Voters also were weighing in on a cigarette tax and changes to term limits.
San Diego and San Jose — the nation’s eighth- and 10th-largest cities — are being closely watched as voters decide on heated measures to curb retirement benefits for current government workers. San Diego also has a fierce mayoral fight.
Some such as 72-year-old San Diego resident Ursula Freeman were motivated to change local pension systems. She voted for putting limits on the pensions of current city employees.
“Go for it, absolutely,” Freeman said.
Glendale preschool aide Sharon Miller said she supported the cigarette tax in a vote against Big Tobacco.
“Anything that makes cigarettes cost more money is a good thing,” she said.
Others who turned out were hopeful that the new top-two system will deliver more competitive contests and more moderate candidates even as they were confronted with a longer, more complicated ballot. In some cases, candidates of the same party are vying to meet again in November.
“I think it helps to level the playing field,” said attorney Susan Hyman after casting her Democratic ballot at a skilled nursing facility in Long Beach. “The districts have been too entrenched by party.”
State election officials reported few problems as polls opened for the day. Voters in Sacramento County may have noticed Chinese added to English and Spanish on their ballots. The move was prompted by recent census changes, said Kim Alexander of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.
Deputy Secretary of State Nicole Winger said about 2,000 people had called in to a voter hotline as of Tuesday afternoon, but most callers simply wanted to know their polling site and registration status. She said the volume was low compared to general elections.
Election officials said traffic was slow throughout the day at many polling sites.
“It looks abysmal,” Contra Costa Registrar of Voters Steve Weir said about low turnout. “It looks like this could be an almost all mail-in ballot elections. It’s seemingly that bad.”
Weir estimated that about 20 percent of ballots might not be processed Tuesday, which could mean candidates could wait to find out if they make the November runoff.
“The issue is not going to be who’s No. 1, but who’s No. 2 or 3,” Weir said of waiting for the results.
That dynamic could come into play in San Diego, where four well-known candidates are running to secure a spot in the fall runoff between the top two finishers.
State Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher is running as an independent against Republicans Carl DeMaio, a city councilman, and Bonnie Dumanis, a three-term San Diego County district attorney. U.S. Rep. Bob Filner is the lone Democrat in the race.
The top-two primary has triggered a new phenomenon where some of the hottest contests are those in which candidates of the same party are vying to meet again in November.
Democrats hope to pick up as many as six seats from California’s 53 congressional districts and have been working to register more voters in traditionally Republican-leaning areas of the Central Valley and the Inland Empire region of Southern California.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is up for re-election this year but faces no serious challenger, despite facing 23 challengers from a variety of political persuasions.
Voters statewide will decide just two ballot measures Tuesday, after the Legislature passed a law saying all future initiatives must appear on general election ballots.
Proposition 28 asks voters if they want to alter California’s legislative term limits, which were approved by voters in 1990. The measure would reduce the total number of years lawmakers can serve in the Legislature from 14 to 12, but it would allow them to serve all of that time in one house. The current term limits are among the strictest in the nation. Three, two-year terms can be served in the 80-member Assembly, and two, four-year terms in the 40-member Senate.
Voters also are being asked to add a $1-a-pack tax to cigarettes to help fund cancer research and anti-smoking campaigns. The measure is backed by cycling legend and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.
Opponents, including tobacco companies, have poured more than $47 million into their campaign, compared with the nearly $18 million raised by supporters.
Both pension proposals have drawn national attention but differ on details.
San Diego’s pension proposal would impose a six-year freeze on pay levels used to determine pension benefits unless a two-thirds majority of the City Council votes to override it. It also puts new hires, except for police officers, into 401(k)-style plans.
Under San Jose’s Measure B, current workers would have to pay up to 16 percent of their salaries to keep their retirement plan or accept more modest benefits. New hires would get less generous benefits.
Associated Press writers Raquel Dillon in Los Angeles, Judy Lin in Sacramento, Amy Taxin in Long Beach and Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.