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Impacts of moving up California’s presidential primary election date

(Emily Dembinski/Daily Bruin)

By Seth Freitas and Genesis Qu

March 2, 2020 1:58 a.m.

Moving up California’s primary date from June to March could create unintended consequences for upcoming elections, UCLA professors said.

California will join 13 other states and American Samoa in voting on March 3, when 34% of the 3,979 delegates will be assigned to Democratic presidential candidates. The change was proposed by the office of the California Secretary of State and approved by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017.

Pushing the primary up to Super Tuesday is supposed to give California a bigger say in choosing the presidential nominee, said Mark Peterson, a public policy professor.

“(In) the past, when California would hold its primary in June, pretty much by that time who was gonna be the nominee from either party was more or less settled,” Peterson said. “It didn’t make a lot of sense that California, the largest state in the country (by population), was so insignificant or inconsequential to the process.”

However, moving the primary date up to March might not make a difference after all, said Jeffrey Lewis, a political science professor.

“In general, when we think about moving it up, the idea is that the sequence of the contest affects who the ultimate winner is and you get more influence if you’re earlier in the process,” Lewis said. “The problem is there could have been a lot of influence at the end.”

Holding the primaries in June made California more relevant in the race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in 2016, as it showed which contender ended up having the lead, Lewis said. Clinton won California that year before eventually clinching the nomination.

Candidates’ performance in the March primaries could serve as an indicator of their future performances, Lewis added. But these candidates might have the same outcome regardless of what time of the year primaries took place, he said.

“Think about a basketball team or football team,” Lewis said. “They don’t lose games late in the season because they lost earlier in the season, they lose games late in the season because they’re not very good at winning games.”

A few factors can complicate the primaries, one being that the process is confusing for the 5 million voters in California who are registered with no-party preference, said John Zaller, a political science professor.

Independent voters have to request a crossover ballot by mailing a postcard they receive from the county register. Many are unaware they are nonpartisan and do not know the specific procedures for getting a crossover ballot.

“People are going to be confused as independents about how to get a ballot to participate,” Peterson said, “It’s supposed to be pretty straightforward at the voting centers, whether or not people understand that when they want to vote by mail. I think it’s harder.”

Critics have also raised concerns that the California primary may appropriate its delegates unfairly, Zaller said.

In California and many other states, candidates must reach a 15% threshold of votes to get any delegates. This means that a candidate with 14% of the votes will get no delegates and his or her delegates will be discarded and awarded proportionally to those who breached the threshold.

This means front-runner candidates will be disproportionately rewarded, Zaller said. In early primary states, this has already rewarded the Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders, he added.

“Sanders has 47% of the delegates from the first three contests but only roughly 26% of the vote,” Zaller said. “So he’s been getting a big advantage of that.”

A fractionalized Democratic field and the 15% rule means a large bonus of California votes will be unequally awarded to Sanders, Zaller said.

One concern with adding California to all the other Super Tuesday states is that candidates with less organization and resources are unable to campaign in all these states at once, Peterson said.

Super Tuesday already includes vastly populated states, like Texas. Having a presence in all of these states requires extensive resources, networks and name recognition, Peterson said.

This helps Sanders campaign far more than it does any other presidential nominee because he retains much of his organizational networks he inherited from his 2016 presidential run, whereas candidates such as Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar have practically no network in California, Peterson said.

“If we want a system in which we open up the leadership possibilities more broadly, then you need to have a primary process which allows more direct (voter-candidate engagement) that doesn’t require a huge amount of money and organization,” Peterson said.

Another problem that comes with an especially early primary date is that all the non-presidential candidates also have to run in March, Peterson said. Positions such as the state senator, those on city councils or district courts have not had an opportunity to start building their campaigns.

These officials might then be submerged under the attention given to presidential candidates, he said.

“They don’t get seen,” Peterson said. “So we don’t know what the down-ballot consequences are. For all these other offices, it adds uncertainty and complexity that wasn’t there before.”

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Seth Freitas
Genesis Qu | Editor in chief
Qu is the 2021-2022 Editor in chief. He was previously the 2020-2021 campus politics editor and a contributor for The Stack. He is also a fourth-year statistics and political science student at UCLA.
Qu is the 2021-2022 Editor in chief. He was previously the 2020-2021 campus politics editor and a contributor for The Stack. He is also a fourth-year statistics and political science student at UCLA.
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