LOS ANGELES - California voters were closely divided Tuesday on Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed $6 billion-a-year tax increase while they weighed whether to end the state's death penalty and impose a first-time requirement on manufacturers to label genetically modified food.
President Barack Obama and Sen. Dianne Feinstein secured easy victories in the state, reaffirming California's prominent Democratic tilt and helping launch the president back to a second term.
Mitt Romney bypassed California, a graveyard for Republican presidential candidates for a generation where GOP registration has fallen below 30 percent. Obama won California and its 55 electoral votes by a double-digit margin, according to early returns.
Pamela Caton, 42, a Green Party member from Berkeley, said she voted for the Democratic president to preserve his health care overhaul, which she said was critical for Americans marooned without costly coverage.
"It would be a big step backward to have Romney in office and dismantle that," she said. Obama "has done a very good job the past four years, given the political climate."
No state politician had more at stake on the ballot than Brown, who was elected after promising to lift the state from its long-running budget crisis. He personally championed the tax boost - Proposition 30 - that he said would restore California's luster, especially for its schoolchildren. He promised to enact automatic spending cuts that would hit public schools hardest if it failed.
Voters turned away a competing plan, Proposition 38, sponsored by wealthy attorney Molly Munger, which would have increased income taxes to inject schools with billions of dollars in new spending. Proposition 30 would boost the sales tax by a quarter cent for four years and income taxes for people who make more than $250,000 a year would be raised for seven years.
Brown was greeted by more than two dozen supporters as he cast his ballot near his home in the Oakland Hills Tuesday morning.
"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.
Kevin Wehr, a sociology professor at California State University, Sacramento rode his bicycle to an elementary school to cast a "yes" vote for Proposition 30, which he hopes will stave off further cuts to his campus.
"It's really important this year because so much hinges on it in terms of education and public safety," said Wehr, 40. "It feels like we've finally gotten to the breaking point and people see that we can't cut our way out of budget deficits."
In the race for president and the Senate, it's fair to say the outcome was never in doubt in the nation's most populous state, home to one in eight Americans.
Feinstein, in a commanding position from the start, essentially ignored Republican Elizabeth Emken, a political neophyte who tried to parlay her experience as an autism advocate and unsuccessful congressional candidate into a campaign against one of the state's most enduring politicians. She had little name recognition or money, making it virtually impossible to run a statewide campaign.
An array of ballot proposals - 11 in all - touched on everything from taxes to food labeling, with many of the most contentions initiatives remaining too close to call hours after the polls closed. Voters also are considering Proposition 32, an attempt to curb union clout at the statehouse, Proposition 37, which would require the labeling of genetically modified foods, and Proposition 34, a repeal of the infrequently enforced death penalty.
California has the nation's most populous death row, with 726 inmates, yet has carried out just 13 executions while spending $4 billion for housing Death Row inmates and paying for their appeals since capital punishment resumed in 1977.
At least $370 million has been spent on the 10 initiatives and one referendum on Tuesday's ballot.
While the presidential and U.S. Senate races had been a yawn in the state, California is a nationally watched battleground for the House of Representative as Democrats try to position themselves to regain the majority in 2014. About a dozen congressional races are considered competitive, thanks in large part to California's new independent redistricting process that redrew congressional and state legislative boundaries.
The outcome in some House battles could continue, or hold back for now, a trend of shriveling Republican political strength in California. Democrats control the Legislature and every statewide office, hold a 2.6 million voter edge statewide, and records released last week showed GOP registration had dropped below 30 percent statewide.
The amount of money spent so far on House races by super PACs and other outside groups - $54 million, and rising - shows their importance to both major parties.
In the state Senate, Democrats are aiming at a supermajority - a grip on two-thirds of the seats - which would allow the party to punch through tax increases without Republican votes. The Assembly should remain firmly in Democratic control, but the party is expected to fall short of the two-thirds margin that would push Republicans to the sidelines.
The competitive landscape in the congressional and legislative races - by far the most seats in play in memory - was set in motion after a voter-authorized citizens panel took control of crafting district boundaries and voters installed a new primary system that sends only the top two vote-getters to the November ballot. In some cases, those candidates are from the same party.
Those changes were intended to open the way for more moderate candidates, but it's not clear if that will change the political complexion of officeholders. Meanwhile, the intraparty battles have created some of the nastiest contests this year.
In Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley area, for example, Democrats Brad Sherman and Howard Berman are wrapping up a race that even got physical when Sherman roughly grabbed the smaller Berman by the shoulder during a debate, pulled him toward his chest and bellowed, "You want to get into this?" Rep. Pete Stark, the long-serving member of California's congressional delegation, faces a strong challenge from a fellow Democrat, Dublin city councilman Eric Swalwell.
In San Diego, the new mayor will represent a break from the past, regardless of who wins. Democratic hopes are riding with Rep. Bob Filner, who could capture an office that has eluded the party for most of four decades, but City Councilman Carl DeMaio could make San Diego the most populous U.S. city to choose an openly gay Republican leader.