Tonight’s primaries in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri will be closely watched by some Californians, as a sign of whether our June primary will make a difference in either party’s nomination. The Florida and Ohio contests are especially crucial on the Republican side, and could go a long way in determining whether the race results in a brokered convention.

“I must say, I’m really looking forward to March 15,” says Linda Ackerman, a California representative on the Republican National Committee, “I think it will be interesting for California because we could actually be a player.”

No matter the result, Californians won’t get a chance to vote in the primary until June 7, the final day that states will weigh in. So why is the Golden State’s primary so late in the game?

Recent Shifts Due to Cost, Relevance 

The date of California’s presidential primary has swung back and forth between the early and late end of the campaign season, reflecting conflicting desires to keep election costs low while also remaining relevant nationally.

Until 1994, California held its primary elections in June, but still occasionally hosted competitive primaries, including tight races on the Democratic side in 1968, 1984 and 1992.

To give the state a more permanent say in the process of selecting nominees, lawmakers moved the state’s primary election to March. It would remain there until 2005, in the meantime giving key wins (and huge delegate totals) to George W. Bush in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

But legislators felt the large gap between the March primary and the November general election was contributing to increasing campaign costs, so they pushed the primary back to June.

As the 2008 election approached, calls to make the state a national player in both primaries led to the passage of SB113, which split the state’s primaries. Over 57 percent of registered Californians voted in the presidential primary in February (the earliest election in state history); three months later in June, only 28 percent of registered voters  weighed in on state propositions and races.

Counties Behind Most Recent Change

Whether it’s a race for the state Legislature, president or a ballot initiative, California counties are largely responsible for shouldering the cost of elections in the state.

“The state has been unwilling to pick up any election costs,” says Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit that works to improve the state’s election process. “It’s something a lot of people don’t realize. It’s a real barrier to voter expansion and participation in California.”

The statewide cost of the February 2008 presidential primary was over $96 million. Neal Kelley, registrar of voters in Orange County, said the June 2008 statewide election cost roughly the same.

“We have to prepare the election the same way, whether we have one item on the ballot or 15 contests on the ballot,” says Kelley. “I always tell people we have to prepare for 100 percent turnout, even if we don’t get 100 percent turnout.”

Having to duplicate the cost of everything from ballot materials to polling place staff led California counties to support a 2011 law that consolidated the state and presidential primary and moved it back to June.

Consolidated March Primary a Middle Ground? 

The results of the move to a consolidated June primary in 2012 were predictable. Turnout of registered voters plummeted to 31 percent in a year when the Democratic nominee for president was an incumbent, and the Republican race was decided by June.

Is there a happy medium between price and participation for California’s presidential primary?

Kim Alexander says the state could consider going back to a consolidated March primary, like it had in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

“It was consolidated, all the contests were on the ballot, so we didn’t have two primaries,” she says. “And we had a lot of voter excitement and participation.”

The state will again have to weigh whether a place on the crowded national stage is worth the effects of a drawn-out, eight-month general election campaign, or whether the state’s top-two primary has already altered the equation on primary spending.

On the other hand, if future primaries play out like 2016, California officials may be content with remaining at the end of the primary campaign trail, taking a chance that they’ll end up in the middle of the action.

Why Is California’s Presidential Primary So Late? 15 March,2016Guy Marzorati

  • Ken Markey

    Guy – California represents 12+ % of the USA population, 12.6% of USA GDP, 56% of USA venture funding … and, our votes don’t really matter. We need to move the primary to a time when WE can have influence on process … not just decide amongst who’s left after all the other states get a say. California should be driving political change, not riding in the passenger seat.

    • VWFeature

      Absolutely agree. And to reduce the costs, we could change to a 100% vote-by-mail system like Oregon uses for all their elections.

  • Erin

    Stuns me that a state as large and important as California ultimately plays little role in the primary. Makes no sense at all.

    • Dennis Cassidy

      Erin, I agree. This is one of the problems with our Political System and are dysfunctional Government. It’s their ignorance to allow voters to make a difference, and use a cost issue or excuse to justify having California’s 2016 on June 7th instead of March 1, 2016…Super Tuesday.

  • calwatch

    For a top-two primary, you need to minimize the time between the “general” election, in June, and the runoff. Imagine if a candidate becomes incapacitated or is arrested of a felony between June and November. Now you have a candidate whom you may absolutely abhor win by default. Ideally, you would have the primary in September and the runoffs in November, but counties can’t certify the votes and print ballots for the next election fast enough, and you want to avoid holding elections during the summer where people are on vacation and there is lower turnout. Louisiana does runoffs in December.

    • Or just switch to ranked choice/single transferable vote and hold the runoff at the same time as the general/primary

  • all-c-ing-eye

    This years primary election could be determined by the late Cal. voting as it might be the determining factor that would stave off a party convention quagmire. Right now it looks like Trump in the Rep. camp and Clinton in the Dems, but if any candidate does or dosnt achieve the total needed, California & New York might be the states that tip the scales one way or the other. This particular year the late entries of Ca. NY. do come into play big time.

  • njudah

    why does any state or local government have to pay for what is basically a private event – a party nomination process? It’s ridiculous that the government has to subsidize this ritual. The parties should be foced to pay for the full costs to the state for their little beauty contests. What’s that? Cant raise the money? Fine then go back to having conventions and caucuses the old fashioned way.

  • miquel95929

    The main problem W/ a March date is that the 88 day requirement for the filings & preliminaries take place in December- a March 1 Primary would require a filing date of Dec 3 thru 10- lots of time off 2nd 1/2 of Dec. The same would be true of an eary April date- filing deadline would be Fri following New Years- April 1 would be Jan 3 w/ Jan 1 as a Holiday. A first Tue of May however would be doable & the filing deadlines would be the first week of Feb(right after Super Bowl). Turnout would be improved because schools at all levels have not yet broken for Summer Break & people are around. This year a May 3RD Primary would make CA ground zero for the next 6 weeks though I also think that will happen this year no matter what.

    • miquel95929

      It would also work for the other 3 cycles when there isn’t an open White house w/ both parties nominations in Play.

Author

Guy Marzorati

Guy Marzorati is a producer for The California Report and KQED's California Politics and Government Desk. Guy joined KQED in 2013. He grew up in New York and graduated from Santa Clara University. Email: GMarzorati@KQED.org

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