Two aphorisms come to mind in weighing the import of Senate Bill 568:
▪ If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.
▪ Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
SB 568, which would shift California’s primary elections from June to March, beginning in 2020, whipped through both legislative houses on party-line votes in the final hours of the 2017 session, and now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature or veto.
It should be the latter, because it’s an ill-conceived effort to make California more relevant in presidential elections that probably will fail, but will befoul elections for state offices and ballot measures.
Actually, making California more relevant is not its true purpose. It’s really aimed at making California’s Democratic politicians more influential in choosing their party’s presidential nominees, and perhaps helping U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris or Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti flirt with White House bids.
Usually, by the time California’s June primary rolls around, the parties have picked their presidential candidates. That grates on the state’s Democratic politicians, who would like to be courted by White House hopefuls and resent that candidates come here often to raise money, but rarely to campaign.
Therefore, they have periodically attempted to push the state into the presidential game by moving its primary to earlier in the year – March in 1994, 2000 and 2004 and February in 2008.
None of them succeeded in making California a major factor, mostly because other states moved their primaries in response. And in fact, most national politicians don’t want California to move up, because campaigning in such a populous and sprawling state is hugely expensive and would make it even more a money game.
California could even lose presidential convention delegates if it chooses to ignore party rules governing primary dates.
So if enacted, SB 568 would probably fail in its supposed purpose, but the bill would require primaries for state offices also to be moved to March, even in non-presidential years, which could have disastrous results.
Candidates for those offices would have to start campaigning and raising money at least a year before the November general election because of the pivotal role that the top-two primary system plays in the final outcome, and after the March vote, there would be eight more months of campaigning.
Campaigning would, in other words, absorb even more time and attention, taking it away from the actual business of governing the state.
Moreover, if the Legislature wanted to place measures before primary voters, they’d have a much-shorter time frame to do that, as was demonstrated in 2004.
Arnold Schwarzenegger had just been sworn in as governor after Gray Davis was recalled and had just a few weeks to forge an agreement on a plan to save the state from insolvency, so it could be placed before voters in the March 2004 primary. The plan was a hot mess that failed to curb spending and haunted Schwarzenegger’s governorship for years.
If California is once again embarking on a fool’s errand to gain clout in choosing presidential candidates, at the very least it should continue having primary elections for state offices and legislative ballot measures in June.
Yes, that would require two primaries every four years, and there would be some cost attached to that schedule, but it would be a small price to pay for retaining some morsel of political sanity.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/articles/author/dan-walters. Dan Walters: firstname.lastname@example.org