SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- A troubled economy, record political spending and a surge in registered voters mark the election Tuesday that also comes with California at a crossroads.
The outcome will decide if residents will pay higher taxes to fix the state's persistently out-of-balance budget; change direction on the death penalty; and pass a first-in-the-nation requirement to label genetically modified foods.
No state politician has more at stake than Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who was elected after promising to end the state's long-running budget crisis and has personally championed a $6 billion-a-year tax increase that he says he will restore California's luster, especially for its schoolchildren.
Rejection of the tax measure would leave Brown politically wounded and facing the prospect of more cuts as the state continues its slow climb from the recession.
Brown was greeted by more than two dozen supporters of the tax measure, as he cast his ballot in Oakland early Tuesday morning. He said he was optimistic the proposition would pass.
"From everything I can tell, the notion of taking a quarter of a cent sales tax and asking those who are in the top 1 percent to help us out in our time of need, I think that's a proposition that speaks for itself and I wouldn't be surprised if the outcome is more positive than most of you are probably expecting," Brown said.
California reached an all-time high of 18.2 million registered voters last week. The percentage of registered Republicans continued to decline, dropping below 30 percent.
Voters will consider 11 statewide ballot propositions, topped by Brown's tax plan, Proposition 30, and the rival Proposition 38, which would raise income taxes across the board and send the extra revenue directly to schools.
Organized labor has spent $75 million so far to block business-backed Proposition 32, which would starve unions of the tens of millions of dollars they use to finance campaigns and political organizing. Proposition 37 could become the first state law requiring manufacturers to label cereals, sodas and other products containing genetically modified ingredients.
Proposition 34 would abolish the death penalty in California, including for the 725 inmates on death row, and make life in prison without parole the toughest sentence.
In an age of unbridled political spending, the campaigns for and against the 11 initiatives raised $350 million as of last month.
Changes in the state voting landscape -- including independently drawn political boundaries -- produced a bumper crop of competitive legislative and congressional races that will test Republican strength in a state growing increasingly Democratic.
The amount of money spent so far in House races by super PACs and other groups -- at least $54 million -- highlights the stakes for both major parties.
Copyright 2012 The AP.