As they headed to the polls yesterday, California voters decided
all manner of key issues, from telephone taxes to stem cell
As they headed to the polls yesterday, California voters decided all manner of key issues, from telephone taxes to stem cell research.
But they might as well resign themselves to the idea that they will almost certainly have little or no influence on national politics for many years to come.
That’s because this state’s politicians decided in late summer that their own convenience means more than California’s clout, counts for more than their state’s ability to exert its will on national policy.
This was the true meaning of the vote to move the primary election back from the first Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday in June.
The switch to March came during the mid-1990s, after more than 20 years of primaries that had no bearing on the presidential nominating process.
Now it’s been more than 30 years since that last meaningful California primary, the one that threw the 1972 Democratic nomination to George McGovern.
The moved-up primary aimed to force presidential candidates to heed the nation’s largest state.
It has not worked, in large part because other states reacted by setting their own votes even earlier. Every nomination of the last 10 years has been determined at least one week before California voted.
Faced with this reality, lawmakers had two options: They could make the primary even earlier, pushing into February, or they could give up and go back to June.
For some reason, no one seriously considered varying the date, setting primaries in February for presidential election years and using a June date for mid-term elections when votes are held for California governor.
There’s been plenty of pious talk about why legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to settle for June in every election year. “An early primary didn’t make us any more relevant,” Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles told a reporter. “The only result was a lower turnout.”
“It was just illusionary,” added Republican state Sen. Ross Johnson of Orange County. “We were wrong. The time has come to admit it.”
His chief of staff told a reporter “It’s been very hard for voters to engage in an election season that comes on the heels of the Christmas season.”
Does this mean she and her boss think Californians are less interested and involved than voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, where early caucuses and primaries are winter festivals?
In short, politicians blame the early date or the weather or standard time or Christmas, for turnouts of 41.9 percent of registered voters in 1996 and 34.6 percent in 2002.
What no politician would say was that early primaries are inconvenient for them. To run in March, they usually must decide by the preceding September whether to run and which office to seek. That allows them less than a year to relax after the previous general election.
A June timetable also works better for Schwarzenegger, who has not publicly let on whether he’ll run for reelection in 2006. The later primary gives him three more months to make up his mind.
Plus, Schwarzenegger has no realistic chance of ever running for president, despite talk about a constitutional amendment allowing naturalized citizens to hold the office. Early voting offers no advantage at all for Schwarzenegger.
Yet, it could for California, if the vote came early enough. For if California voted when nominations were still in play, candidates would have to do more than merely run fund-raising vacuum cleaners through the state, sucking up dollars without attending to the state’s concerns. If this state had clout, maybe the federal government would be paying more to deal with illegal immigrants. Maybe there would be no lingering threat of offshore oil drilling.
One potential twist could be to separate presidential voting from all other ballot questions and nominations, and stage a separate mid-February vote just for that, with a June date for all other issues. This idea has never flown in Sacramento because it would cost about $25 million.
The upshot is that because California has evolved into a state Democrats take for granted in presidential voting, while Republicans virtually concede, candidates pay it little heed in the fall.
Now they can safely ignore California in the spring, too. This may work for the politicos, but it helps no one else.