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Secretary of State Debra Bowen said today there will be an "army of lawyers" looking at the constitutionality of Proposition 14 if the measure is approved today.

Under the "top two" primary system, candidates of all party affiliations would run on one primary ballot. Only the top two vote-getters would advance to a general run-off election. The change does not impact presidential contests.

Proponents, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, say the change would increase voter choice and turnout in primary contests. They also argue that more moderate politicians would be elected because candidates would have to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate.

But critics say only allowing two candidates and eliminating write-in ballots in the general limits voter choice and that some minor parties would be locked out of the political process.

A similar system enacted in Washington state was upheld by the Supreme Court, but some aspects of the challenge are still being litigated. In California, leaders from the major and minor parties, who oppose the measure, and some ballot access advocates appear poised to file a lawsuit if Proposition 14 passes.

Bowen, who does not take an official stance on measures on the ballot, said she thinks concerns from California's minor parties that they would lose ballot qualified status under the change are legitimate. Under current law, most minor parties achieve state recognition by winning 2 percent of the vote in a statewide office during a midterm general election. That feat would be nearly impossible under the top-two model, as a third party candidate would be unlikely to emerge as a top vote-getter in a primary for statewide office.

Bowen said she has also heard concerns from county elections officials about the implementation of the new system. A free-for-all ballot would likely be longer than the current single-party primary ballots. While that could create a cost trade-off, by only having to print one ballot instead of multiple versions for each party primary, she said it is uncertain whether current software can process the longer candidate lists.

"It's not clear whether or not the elections equipment at the county level we already have can handle that," she said.

Former Democratic Assemblyman Steve Peace, who drafted the measure and now works with the California Independent Voter Network, said yesterday that the language had been vetted by election law and litigation experts and that he was confident it would stand up under the law.

Bowen's remarks came during a tour of the Secretary of State Elections Division toll-free Voter Hotline operations. She said the election appeared to be running smoothly, with the exception of several polling spots across the state opening a few minutes late. A spokeswoman said the most common inquiries for the hotline were voters asking whether they are registered to vote and where they can find their precinct.

Voters with questions about voting or wishing to file a complaint related to the elections can call (800) 345-VOTE (8683) for English speakers and (800) 232-VOTA (8682) for Spanish speakers.


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