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June primary makes California irrelevant once every four years

Last Tuesday was certainly a beautiful day to go to the polls for California’s primary election. The sun was shining, the weather was great and everyone in line agreed it was a fine day for voting. If the primary had been held back in March, it probably would have been colder, and it might have even rained.

But nice weather is truly the only benefit to voting in June. This will become painfully obvious in 2008, when the downside will become enormous: California—the most populous state in the union—will not for the foreseeable future have any influence in selecting presidential nominees.

In 2004, after an eight-year experiment with early March primary elections, California legislators unanimously decided to switch all our primaries back to June—without a single dissent in either house. The politicians sneaked this through in the annual flood of over 1,000 bills passed during the last week of the legislative session, when nobody was paying much attention. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law, and the media and public mostly ignored it.

Supporters of the June move had their reasons, spoken and unspoken. They pointed out that in the 2004 primary California had no real impact at all, since 20 other states had jumped their primaries ahead of ours.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nez, D-Los Angeles, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, summed up the argument: “An early primary didn’t make us any more relevant. The only result was a lower turnout.” Since low voter turnout in 2004 was a direct result of moving the primary forward (the argument went), moving it back to June was going to solve the problem and improve turnout.

This attempt at logic boggles the mind. Somehow, making California voters less relevant to the presidential nomination is going to get more people to the polls? There was zero public pressure to move the primaries to June, and little or no public debate on the issue in 2004.

The real reason politicians on both sides of the aisle passed this law was to give incumbents a shorter general election campaign. A shorter campaign means not having to raise as much money. This is why the bill passed unanimously—because it benefits politicians, not voters.

Admitting “we tried it, we don’t think it worked too well, so we’re throwing in the towel” is pathetic and defeatist. There were only a few presidential elections since the date was moved to March. This experiment should have been given more time to work before it was scrapped.

Then-Sen. Ross Johnson, R-Irvine, the state senator behind the move back to June primaries, actually tried a more intelligent approach to the problem. He first proposed having a state primary in June and, every four years, a separate and earlier presidential primary. But Johnson couldn’t get support for the idea, since it would have cost millions to hold two primaries instead of one in presidential years, so he essentially gave up and moved everything to June.

Granted, it has been a while since California was the deciding factor in a nomination race. For Democrats, George McGovern in 1972 was the last time, and for Republicans it was back in 1964, when Barry Goldwater won California. That’s not exactly the recent past.

In the previous presidential election in 2004, George Bush ran unopposed, so there was no drama there. But John Kerry didn’t formally wrap up the Democratic nomination until March 13, almost two weeks after Californians voted March 2. Howard Dean didn’t even drop out of the race until mid-February. John Edwards could have staged a comeback by winning California, if he had won a few states in the South as well. And if it had been a real race with three strong candidates splitting victories in smaller, earlier states, we would have been the 800-pound gorilla of primaries.

Imagine if Sacramento had really fixed the problem, by pushing our primary even further forward to February. Being closer to the front of the primary calendar would mean candidates would visit the state, run election ads here and pay attention to California’s issues during their campaigns.

Republicans could have voted for John McCain in 2000, making him much more viable against Bush. Democrats could have voted for Dean, Dennis Kucinich or Edwards, knowing their votes mattered.

Since we have so many more delegates than other states, a win or even a strong second-place finish here would make a candidate much more competitive in the nationwide race, giving voters everywhere more choice.

But voting in June is an ironclad guarantee that both candidates will already have been chosen by the time California gets to vote for them. This means candidates have little or no reason to pay attention to us during the primary campaign (other than using us as their ATM, dropping in for a little light fundraising, then jetting quickly out, pockets stuffed with tech money). And since we’re a solid-blue Democratic state in the general election, both candidates probably won’t even bother campaigning here before November.

Is this really what the state with the most primary delegates and the most Electoral College votes deserves? We will be completely ignored because we have made ourselves utterly voiceless in the process.

No matter which party you prefer, this should disturb you, as it affects both parties. The 2008 presidential election is going to be the first in recent memory where there will be no incumbent running from either party. Vice President Dick Cheney has repeatedly stated he won’t run, so there is no Republican heir apparent. The Democratic race is shaping up to be a real free-for-all, with front-runner Hillary Clinton facing off against a diverse crowd of candidates.

Now consider: Would you be more likely or less likely to vote in the primary election if you knew that your vote could ultimately decide who got your party’s nomination?

We’ve got two years until what could be the most exciting primary race in our lifetimes. But moving our primaries forward again is obviously not going to happen in Sacramento. The best way to fix the problem would be a millionaire bankrolling a voter initiative between now and 2008, which is admittedly a long shot. (Hello, Hollywood? Anyone interested?) The other option would be a huge grass-roots effort effectively using the media to get the message out: California wants to be the kingmaker of primaries.

Since neither of those is very likely, I guess we’ll all enjoy the nice June weather when we vote in 2008. It’ll be the only thing to feel good about, since both nominees will already have been locked in for months by voters in other, smaller states. Do you like Sen. Russ Feingold more than Sen. Clinton? Want McCain over Rudy Giuliani? Tough luck, since we will have to meekly accept whomever Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina anoint as the best two candidates for Californians.

CHRIS WEIGANT is executive editor of Pamphleteering Press, a Capitola-based publisher of political commentary and political humor books. He wrote this article for Perspective.

[This article has been edited since it ran in the Mercury News, to correct a typo: “John Kucinich” has been changed to “Dennis Kucinich.”]

—Published 6/11/06, Page 1P
Copyright © 2006, San Jose Mercury News
By Chris Weigant

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