California May Abandon Key Primary Role

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California, the big prize in presidential politics, may be about to give up its eight-year quest for more clout in picking presidential nominees.

A bill moving through the Legislature would shift the state's primary election from early March back to June, the month it held the vote for 50 years, and put California at the back of the pack when states select presidential convention delegates.

The measure's author, Republican state Sen. Ross Johnson, says the March election has made the campaign season unreasonably long, increased campaign costs and reduced voter turnout (search) without boosting the state's role in determining who goes to the White House.

"I would think that anyone would look at this and say this has been a failure," he said. "This has not been good for democracy, not been good for elections in California, and let's own up to it and say it's a mistake."

The Senate unanimously passed his bill in May and the Assembly elections committee approved it last month. It's awaiting a hearing Wednesday in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, the last stop before the full Assembly.

It would move the primary to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June, the date the state used for the election from 1946 until 1996, when it was moved to the fourth Tuesday in March.

Supporters of the earlier primary said California hadn't had a real impact in picking presidential nominees since 1972, even though the state sends the biggest blocs of delegates to the national conventions. The June primary, they complained, allowed presidential candidates to ignore California issues while using the state as a place to raise money.

After Bill Clinton and Bob Dole locked up the Democratic and Republican nominations in 1996 before Californians voted, the state moved its primary even earlier -- to the first Tuesday in March.

But other states had the same idea and by the time California held its primary this year 20 other states had already awarded delegates, and nine states scheduled primaries or caucuses on the same day as California. John Kerry (search) had a virtual lock on the Democratic nomination going into the election and George Bush (search) had no significant opposition.

Johnson says he would prefer to keep an early presidential primary and hold a second primary later in the year to pick nominees for state and congressional posts, but his several attempts to do that have failed, mainly because of cost concerns.

Former Sen. Jim Costa, the Democrat who was the author of the March primary legislation, said he would prefer to see Johnson stick to his efforts to split the primary in two and perhaps even move up the date of the presidential primary.

Costa said the state could boost voter turnout by holding the election on a weekend instead of on a Tuesday, looking for ways to expand voting by mail or allowing people to both register and vote on Election Day (search).

"But to move it back to June as it relates to the presidential sweepstakes every four years is acknowledging that California will never have a say and therefore we're throwing in the towel," he added.

Other states also are finding themselves with primaries that have little impact, said Meredith Imwalle, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State (search). Ten canceled their primaries this year because of dwindling voter interest and budget cuts, she said.

The association would like states to adopt a rotating primary system under which four regions of the country -- East, South, Midwest and West -- would take turns holding their primaries in March, April, May and June, after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

"We've seen a lot of support from state election officials because their primaries are quickly becoming expensive formalities," she said. "It's a lot of money to spend if you feel you're not having any impact and voters are not showing up."