The pri­mary goal: democ­racy

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - GE­ORGE SKEL­TON in sacra­mento

Don’t know about any­one else, but my eyes glaze and ears go mute when­ever there’s me­dia spec­u­la­tion about the loom­ing pres­i­den­tial race. That’s be­cause as a Cal­i­for­nian, my opin­ion doesn’t mean squat.

My vote will be mean­ing­less. It can’t be cast un­til the June 2016 Cal­i­for­nia pri­mary, long af­ter the nom­i­nat­ing con­tests will have been de­cided by other states, too many of them pam­pered pee­wees. That’s just how it has been for about the last 40 years.

Typ­i­cally, a can­di­date breaks ahead of the pack, then in­creases the lead and be­comes a speed­ing train. Politi­cians, donors and vot­ers scam­per aboard. Money dries up for chal­lengers.

And in the Novem­ber gen­eral elec­tion, well, for­get it. Cal­i­for­nia is a vir­tual cinch to cast most of its votes for the Demo­crat, no mat­ter who it is. And be­cause of the lu­di­crously out­dated win­ner-take-all Elec­toral Col­lege sys­tem, any vote cast for the Repub­li­can will be worth­less.

So Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers again will be watch­ing from the nose­bleed seats. We may as well be living in Guam, rather than the most pop­u­lous state with the world’s eighth largest econ­omy.

It’s too late to do any­thing about the Novem­ber elec­tion. There’s a strug­gling na­tional move­ment, which Cal­i­for­nia gov­ern­ment sup­ports, to fi­nally junk the Elec­toral Col­lege

and elect the pres­i­dent based on who most Amer­i­cans vote for across the coun­try. Hardly a rad­i­cal idea. But that won’t hap­pen for a while, if ever.

We could, how­ever, re­turn to hold­ing an ear­lier pres­i­den­tial pri­mary. The Leg­is­la­ture and Gov. Jerry Brown could do that for next year.

Cal­i­for­nia tried early pri­maries in four pres­i­den­tial elec­tions start­ing in 1996. It was a mixed bag. Usu­ally, the nom­i­na­tions were all but nailed down be­fore we voted.

In 2008, Cal­i­for­nia did res­cue Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial can­di­dacy by de­liv­er­ing a timely victory on Su­per Tues­day, Feb. 5, that kept her breath­ing for three more months. In the Repub­li­can pri­mary, Cal­i­for­nia all but clinched the nom­i­na­tion for John McCain.

In 2012, we went back to our his­toric June pri­mary, and Cal­i­for­nia played no role in the nom­i­nat­ing process. It would have been an ideal year for us to hold an early pri­mary be­cause the GOP con­test dragged on longer than ex­pected. Na­tion­ally, Repub­li­can vot­ers weren’t at all ex­cited about Mitt Rom­ney, the even­tual win­ner.

But Brown and the Demo­cratic-con­trolled Leg­is­la­ture de­cided to com­bine pres­i­den­tial bal­lot­ing with the regular state pri­mary in June. The ma­jor­ity party could not have cared less about a pres­i­den­tial pri­mary, be­cause Pres­i­dent Obama was not be­ing chal­lenged for renom­i­na­tion. And it didn’t want the Cal­i­for­nia GOP to get en­er­gized.

That wasn’t what Democrats said out loud, of course. They claimed to be sav­ing money.

The last early pres­i­den­tial pri­mary in 2008, ac­cord­ing to the sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice, cost coun­ties $94 mil­lion to con­duct. Add on $4.2 mil­lion for the state cost of print­ing and mail­ing a voter in­for­ma­tion guide. That’s a roughly $98-mil­lion tab for democ­racy.

Ac­tu­ally, the real waste of money is tal­ly­ing pres­i­den­tial votes in June.

I asked new Sec­re­tary of State Alex Padilla how he feels about per­haps re­viv­ing the early pri­mary — which no one I’m aware of is sug­gest­ing, can­didly, ex­cept me. Padilla sees pluses and mi­nuses.

“It is painful to watch na­tional can­di­dates come to Cal­i­for­nia con­stantly for fundrais­ing,” he says, “but when it comes to reach­ing out to vot­ers, we read and hear all about them in Iowa and New Hamp­shire and North Carolina and Ne­vada. Not in Cal­i­for­nia, the most pop­u­lous state.”

“I wouldn’t say that makes us com­pletely ir­rel­e­vant,” Padilla adds, “but it cer­tainly doesn’t give us the voice we ought to have given our pop­u­la­tion.”

Ah, yes, the Cal­i­for­nia ATM.

If you’re rich, you get cod­dled and charmed. Obama and Rom­ney car­ried away $137.8 mil­lion from Cal­i­for­nia donors in 2012 while spend­ing vir­tu­ally noth­ing here.

Pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, Padilla says, “ought to fig­ure out how to pay at­ten­tion to vot­ers, too, not just check­books.”

The only rea­son they’d do that is if vot­ers had any real im­pact on their po­lit­i­cal fates.

“The flip side of an early pri­mary,” Padilla con­tin­ues, “is not just the cost of a sep­a­rate elec­tion, but voter fa­tigue.” Af­ter vot­ing in a pres­i­den­tial pri­mary, the the­ory goes, peo­ple wouldn’t bother to turn out for the state pri­mary three months later. So? Their choice. In the early 2008 pres­i­den­tial pri­mary, the turnout was about 58%. And, yes, it dropped off to 28% in the June state pri­mary. But in the com­bined pres­i­den­tial and state pri­mary in June 2012, the turnout was only 31%. And last June’s state pri­mary drew a mere 25% turnout, even with all statewide of­fices on the bal­lot.

Crit­ics of early pres­i­den­tial pri­maries con­tend Cal­i­for­nia never at­tained the clout it had ex­pected.

“It doesn’t work,” says long­time po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Tony Quinn. “It had no ef­fect.”

But clout shouldn’t be the prin­ci­pal goal. It should be giv­ing Cal­i­for­ni­ans the op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate in nom­i­nat­ing a pres­i­dent when their vote still mat­ters, some­time in Fe­bru­ary or March.

We should never re­turn to early pri­maries that com­bine pres­i­den­tial and state elec­tions. We had three. They made for ridicu­lously long state cam­paigns and mucked up the state’s po­lit­i­cal rhythm. But sep­a­rate pri­maries make sense.

An un­ex­pected tax wind­fall is rolling into state cof­fers. A frac­tion of it should be spent on en­hanc­ing democ­racy.

Bob Chamberlin

CAL­I­FOR­NI­ANS’ VOTES will mat­ter lit­tle in the June 2016 pres­i­den­tial pri­mary. Shift­ing the pri­mary to Fe­bru­ary or March could give us a real say.

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