Earlier primary could backfire on California

Sen. Bernie Sanders rallies supporters in Sacramento a month before the June 2016 presidential primary. A new law moves up California’s primary to March in 2010.
Sen. Bernie Sanders rallies supporters in Sacramento a month before the June 2016 presidential primary. A new law moves up California’s primary to March in 2010. Sacramento Bee file

Under a new law to designed to increase California’s influence, its presidential primary will move up to March from June in 2020.

But rather than addressing the root problem – the lack of a nationally coordinated primary system – California’s self-interested play could backfire.


Senate Bill 568 seems based upon the assumption that “earlier is better,” but an earlier primary moves up the enormous cost of reaching the state’s 25 million eligible voters (and 11 media markets), while candidates lose the exposure of campaigning in other states first.

That will increase the need for early big money, and potentially eliminate candidates prematurely. Is that really in the interest of most Californians?

By contrast, a better national primary system would expand the number of early retail politicking opportunities in more small states, giving candidates a chance to attract large numbers of small donations to spend in later primaries. By the time the race comes to California, there could be more viable options for our diverse electorate.

Visionary leadership from California officials would have made SB 568 a two-year bill, while starting discussions with other states and the national political parties to promote a coordinated primary system. If nothing came of the talks, the bill could still have been become law in 2018. But California would have had some leverage to promote a better system.

Now SB 568 may simply initiate a primary-date arms race, as happened when California moved its 2008 presidential primary to February, and more than 30 other states moved theirs as well.

But unlike 2008, the new law would also move up the state’s primaries for state and congressional offices, creating a longer, more expensive general election campaign for those seats. Already “top two” elections have increased campaign costs by eliminating party primaries and compelling candidates to campaign to all voters twice for those seats.

By moving up the start of the candidate filing period to the previous September, SB 568 would also force potential candidates to decide earlier whether they have the resources to run. After the Legislature eliminated general election write-in candidacies, SB 568 could discourage challengers from running – an incumbent protection plan.

The new law’s supporters argue that moving all primaries to March is necessary to promote voter participation for other offices. But is higher voter turnout meaningful if their choices are restricted?

Despite recent changes in state law making it easier to register and vote, voter turnout in California has been at all-time lows since “top two” elections began in 2012. Perhaps instead, we should give people more reasons to vote by moving to multi-seat, proportional elections for the Legislature and Congress.

As for the presidential primary, it may be too late for 2020. But what to do in 2024 should be part of next year’s campaign for governor and secretary of state.

California frequently cooperates with other states on other issues. Why not on democracy?

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica mayor and a co-founder of the Green Party of California. He can be contacted at