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How Does The Open Primary Change What Your Vote Means?

May 9, 2012 1:06 p.m.


Deborah Seiler, San Diego County Registrar of Voters

Related Story: A Primer On Your Primary Election Ballot For San Diego County


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Wednesday, May 9th. Our top story on Midday Edition, it's not too soon to start making your mind up about races in the June primary because voting has already begun. The San Diego registrar of voters sent out mail in ballots this week, and people can cast votes in in person at the registrar's office in Kearny Mesa. This is the first San Diego primary election to be affected by California's new top-two primary act, and it will make for a slightly different kind of voting experience. Joining us is my guest, San Diego County registrar of voter, Deborah Seiler. Welcome back to the show.

SEILER: Thank you very much, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego County voters will be casting ballots for a variety of elected offices this June. Give under the circumstances some of the highlights of those offices that are on the ballot. ?

SEILER: Certainly, well, of course the first office at the top of the ticket is the presidential primary contest. And that will be separate for each political party. We also have a very lengthy contest for U.S. Senate. About 25 candidates who filed for that. We have the usual offices such as representative in Congress, state assembly, state Senate. We have in the City of San Diego, the citywide race for mayor, a couple of city propositions. We have a few contested judgeships. And some school district offices.

CAVANAUGH: So it's very active. There are, as you say, the state proposition, and local propositions. I want to let everyone know that we will be talking about state proposition 28 later in this program. And those propositions, Deborah, they are decided outright in this primary election. In other words, they don't show up again in the November ballot.

>> That is correct. In order for the propositions to pass, most typically they need 50% or more of the vote.

CAVANAUGH: And what other offices decided outright in this primary?

SEILER: Well, some of the local offices could be decided outright in the primary. For example, the City Council races in the City of San Diego, if a candidate in that City Council district gets 50% or more of the vote, they would not have to go forward in the November election. The same is true, actually for mayor. If some one of those four candidates for mayor gets 50% or more of the vote, they could win outright in this June primary. Also true for Board of Supervisors. If one of the candidates wins 50% or more of the vote, they win outright in June.

CAVANAUGH: And if nobody wins 50% of the vote, then the top two vote getters move onto the November election.

SEILER: That is correct. Now, by contrast, those state offices, U.S. Senate, representative in Congress, state assembly, state Senate, those go forward onto the November ballot regardless. Even if one wins 50% of the vote, the top two regardless go to the November ballot.

CAVANAUGH: I'm glad you pointed that out. Speaking of the top two vote getters, proposition 14 goes into effect this primary. Give us an overview of how shachanges things.

>> Those races are no longer called even partisan. They're now called voter nominated contests. Of and the way they work is that all of the candidates who wish to file for that office file their papers with us, and they are all put on the same ballot. When voters see their ballot, many have their ballots now, they will see for example in the contest for United States representative, they will see a Republican, they will see a Democrat, and in some cases they will see people who are running with no party preference at all. So this is new. It used to be that in that same contest, a Republican would only see the Republicans on their ballot

CAVANAUGH: Right. In a primary election, what used to happen if you're correct me if I'm wrong, is that if you got a Republican ballot, you would see maybe two, three people who were all Republicans who were running to be the Republican candidate, so to speak for that particular Senate seat or whatever the office was. But now you see everybody who's trying to become Senator or Congressman or -- all on the primary ballot.

SEILER: That's correct. And that's part of the reason we call it an open primary. There's different terminology. We often refer to it as a top-two, that's because the top two vote getters go forward to November. But it's also calledon 'primary because it's open to all the voters. All the candidate, regardless of the voter's party preference, regardless of the candidate's preference, the voters can vote for anyone.

CAVANAUGH: When we get our ballots, that's one difference we're going to see. Also the way the party affiliation is designated on the ballot has changed. Tell us a little bit about that.

SEILER: Yes. The new law under the top two primary election requires us to print the word party preference, then the political party. So it would be party preference, Republican, party preference, democratic, etc. And in order to highlight the party, what we've done is put it in caps, and we've abbreviated it so that it stands out a bit more on the ballot visually. So you'll see party preference, REP, for Republican, or DEM for Democrat, for example. Then we have a code in the book for the other -- for all of the parties.

CAVANAUGH: And the book you refer to is the voter's guide. There's a lot more that needs to be explained this time around, right?

SEILER: There is. The very front page of the inside cover of the sample ballot booklet that I'm referring to explains the top two primary, it has a couple of really important paragraphs in there that we urge the voters to take a look at. It explains that top two primary, but importantly, it also explains for those voters who are registered with a political party how to use the book if they're registered with a political party. The only real partisan contest is the presidential primary contest.

CAVANAUGH: Let me change gears. Maybe we should spend a little time talking about this because there's been in the news lately, a lot of interest in San Diegans, some San Diegans starting what they call a movement to the middle. They have gone officially in to get their voting registration changed to what they call Independent. And I guess is technically not specified. What is it called?

SEILER: Technically now it's called no party preference. But we typically refer to it as nonpartisan. So the nonpartisan voters now can really have -- they have a full choice of voting in the state offices that used to be partisan offices. So now it doesn't matter if they're nonpartisan any longer. But the nonpartisan voters have the option of passing over to vote in at this time democratic presidential primary, or the American Independent presidential primary. Of the other primaries are closed primaries. If a nonpartisan voter wants to vote a Republican ballot, for example, they would have to reregister as a Republican. But for the most part, the ballots are all open to anyone. So it doesn't really matter whether one is a registered Democrat, Republican, or nonpartisan, because most of the contests on that ballot are open to everyone.

CAVANAUGH: If someone were motivated to change their party from one to another, can you change your registration at any time?

SEILER: Yes, you can. For this particular election, are the deadline to register to vote and to change that party registration, if the voter wishes to, is May 21st. And our office will be open until 8:00 PM, that's the 15th day before the election. Is that always the deadline to register to vote. But at any time thereafter, if a voter wanted to register with a particular political party, for example, for this June election, and then later wanted to register either with a different political party or register as a nonpartisan voter, they certainly could do so.

CAVANAUGH: One more question about this. Again, it's been in the headlines a lot. San Diego mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher has switched from being a Republican to being a nonpartisan, and I guess a lot of people might expect to see that reflected on the ballot in some way. Will they?

SEILER: No, they will not. The contest for local offices, that would be City Council, mayor, School Board, those are all what we call nonpartisan contests. So the candidate's political party preference is never displayed on the ballot in those contests. It's picked up by the media.

CAVANAUGH: What level of confusion do you anticipate from voters over the changes in this top two primary?

SEILER: Well, I might be idealistic, but I'm really hoping that when the voters receive their ballot booklets, they will read the first couple of pages. Because we did make every effort to explain all of this. I think the ballot, when you look at it, when you see the ballot, is pretty self-explanatory. Clearly the first office on the ballot is the office for president. If it's a party registration. But everything else is on the same on that entire ballot. And I think when the voter looks at it, they will see a full array of all the candidates they're entitled to select.

CAVANAUGH: And on the November ballot, it is possible that one or two of these contests, maybe not in San Diego County, but one or two of these contests that used to be between a Republican and a Democrat or somebody from another party might actually pit two people of the same party together; is that right?

SEILER: Yes, that's absolutely correct. In a very heavily weighted district, let's say, if it's very heavily Republican or very heavily Democrat, then you might have have Democrats going forward in November or you might have two Republicans going forward.

CAVANAUGH: Do you expect that to be confusing for people?

SEILER: I think by the time we get there, people will really understand it. Of I think that's a little far off right now. But by the time we get there, I'm sure that the voters are going to get it.

CAVANAUGH: Have all the mail-in ballots gone out?

SEILER: Yes, they have. The first day for us legally to mail those ballots was this past Monday. And we put in over 725,000 ballots into the mail on Monday. And voters have received them or are receiving them, and we actually even have close to 500 balon thes already returned to our office


SEILER: So the voting process is definitely in full swing. And as you correctly mentioned, our office is open for early voting.

CAVANAUGH: Now, are the numbers -- we kept reading for years about the number of mail-in ballots continuing to rise. Is that still going up?

SEILER: Yes, it is. So many of the new registrations coming in, people check the box that says I'd like to be a permanent vote by mail voter. Our voters are finding it to be tremendously convenient, they don't have to worry about where their polling place is, are they going to be home on election day, there are a lot of advantages. And we're having a better turnout than the statewide average, and even the surrounding Southern California counties. And, attribute that to so many offure voters are opting for the vote by mail process.

CAVANAUGH: And they still have time in this election to request a mail-in ballot; is that right?

SEILER: If folks are not already permanent vote by mail voters and they want to apply, they have until May 29th to get those applications in. After that, they can bring the confliction into us, but then it's too late for us to mail. So we're looking for them by May 29th. And they are on the back of every sample ballot booklet that a voter receives if they just go to the very back cover, there's an application there they can just fill out and mail in.

CAVANAUGH: When you start getting these early returns from either people who go down to Kearny Mesa, or people who mail back their mail-in ballots, do you start counting votes?

SEILER: No, we don't start countingly the votes. We bring the ballots in, we sort them by city, then we hold onto those ballots until about ten days before the election. At that point then we can slice them and extract those ballots. We don't count the votes. We do scan the ballots into the system. We don't release any results at all until the polls close on election day.

CAVANAUGH: There are still polls, people still go to the polls, and the primary election is June 5th. There's usually an interest in how many people are going to be able to volunteer. Do you have the number of people you need?

SEILER: Not quite. We're still looking for some poll workers in targeted areas. We added Chinese as a covered language. So we --

CAVANAUGH: For the first time, right?

SEILER: For the first time. With this election. In addition to the top two primary and several other changes, we're adding Chinese. So we're still looking for people who are bilingual, speaking English and Chinese, and some of our other languages, and we still need folks who are stand-by poll workers.

CAVANAUGH: You've gone to great pains to make this change in the ballot as clear as possible and to provide information on all the sample ballot pamphlets that people receive. But if people still have questions, and they can't quite make it out, what these changes are, can they call your office, can they get in touch with the county registrar?

SEILER: We have a full call center available standing by to take voters' calls and e-mails. 858-565-5800. And our web address is Voters can contact us, and we have I whole crew of people there standing by to take those phone calls.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds like it's going to be a very exciting election.

SEILER: I think so.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

SEILER: Thank you very much, Maureen.