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Voters face Tuesday deadline to register for March 3 presidential primary vote

Sonoma County residents have until Tuesday to register to vote in the March 3 primary election, which is likely to draw a large turnout with contentious local issues on the ballot and a chance for Californians to help clarify the muddled race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

With 13 other states also holding primary elections on Super Tuesday, the balloting in 15 days may reveal which of the candidates have resonated with voters and could earn the right to challenge President Donald Trump in November.

California has never before voted on Super Tuesday and hasn’t voted in March since 1996, largely negating the electoral influence of the nation’s most populous state.

“Traditionally, California has not mattered. It was late in the game,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.

California can be a high-stakes state for Democrats with 494 convention delegates, accounting for 12% of the required 3,979 votes to secure ?the nomination. A total of ?1,358 delegates will be awarded on Super Tuesday, when former New York mayor and multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg will make his debut on many of the 14 state primary ballots.

The winner in California and on Super Tuesday overall “will be in the driver’s seat for the nomination,” McCuan said. His forecast: “It looks like Bernie (Sanders) will be driving the car, but his main rival will be Mike Bloomberg.”

Super Tuesday will determine 36 percent of the delegates needed for the nomination and by the end of March more than two-thirds of them will have been selected, McCuan said.

Two hot-button local races on the ballot are the 3rd District supervisorial contest and the big-money campaign over SMART’s bid for early renewal of the quarter-cent sales tax crucial to its survival.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a three-term incumbent whose district covers central Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, faces former Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, a one-term councilman who represents her strongest challenge since she won office in 2008.

The two differ on key issues, including homelessness, with contrasting political personas, as well. The former political allies and close friends are embroiled in an increasingly rancorous campaign.

A combined $2.6 million - primarily from two sources - has poured into the campaign for Measure I, which would support the commuter rail line that began operation in summer 2017.

Molly Gallaher Flater, the daughter of prominent local developer Bill Gallaher and chief operating officer at Windsor-based Gallaher Homes, has donated more than $1.4 million to the opposition campaign, while the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria have contributed $1 million to back the tax measure.

Seats for two other county supervisors, four state legislators and two members of Congress are also on the ballot.

Given the level of interest, Deva Proto, the county registrar of voters, anticipates a turnout of 65% to 70% of registered voters. Turnout in the last presidential primary in 2016 - when Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination and Trump ran away with the Republican nod - was 65%. Turnout in the November general election that year was 78%.

Eight years ago - when Republicans selected Mitt Romney and Democrats stuck with President Barack Obama in 2012 - the Sonoma County primary turnout was just 47%.

Sonoma County has about 276,000 registered voters, and Proto said she expects the number to rise as the election approaches.

About 220,000 vote-by-mail ballots were sent out earlier this month, representing about 80 percent of registered voters.

Proto expects a large number of the mail ballots will be turned in on Election Day as Democrats wait to see how the presidential field shapes up, with the Nevada caucuses on Saturday and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29.

Mail ballots turned in on Election Day cannot be counted that night and have in the past consistently delayed Sonoma County’s final tally, leaving close races undecided for weeks. The county’s new voting system, however, will enable the registrar to issue updates during the processing of mail ballots, Proto said.

To register as a voter, residents must be U.S. citizens, at least 18 years old on or before Election Day and not in prison or on parole for a felony conviction. Any voter who has moved, changed their name or wants to change their party preference should re-register by Tuesday’s deadline.

Registration may be done online at registertovote.ca.gov. Postage-paid paper forms are available at many public and government offices, including city halls, post offices, public libraries and the registrar’s office at 435 Fiscal Drive, Santa Rosa.

Completed forms returned by mail must be postmarked by the deadline, and forms may also be delivered to a drive-through dropbox at the registrar’s office at any time of day or night.

Tuesday is the official deadline for registering to vote on March 3, but is actually not the last chance.

People who miss the deadline may pursue conditional, or same-day registration, at the elections office or polling place. They can also register online, but need to bring their email confirmation when voting in person.

Information about voter registration or other election matters is available at the Registrar’s Office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, excluding holidays, or by calling 707-565-6800 or 800-750-VOTE toll free.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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