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California moves its presidential primary to March in push for electoral relevance

 (Los Angeles Times)
(Los Angeles Times)

Backing an effort for California to claim a bigger share of the attention from presidential candidates, Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill moving the state's primary elections to early March.

Brown's decision, announced without fanfare on Wednesday, means the state will hold its presidential primary on March 3, 2020. It's a reversal from a decision he made in 2011 to push the state's primary elections back until June, after years of trying — and failing — to entice major candidates to bring their campaigns to California instead of smaller, more rural states.

Democrats who embraced the push for an early primary said they were motivated in part by the election of President Trump, whose successful bid for the Republican Party nomination was well on its way to reality by the time California voters cast ballots on June 7, 2016.

"We have a greater responsibility and a greater role to promote a different sort of agenda at the national level," said state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), the author of the bill. "We need to have a greater influence at the national level."

The new law also moves California's congressional and legislative primaries to March, a change which some have suggested could make it difficult for challengers to raise money and quickly put together a credible campaign for challenging established incumbents.

Under current projections, California's primary would come fifth in the presidential nominating process in 2020 — following caucuses in Iowa and Nevada and primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Lara said he realizes that the Democratic National Committee may not like the state moving its election up to the early slot, but that he hopes party officials will work with California officials over the next few years to accommodate the change.

"California's role has clearly changed," he said.

California first tried the March primary in 1996. But by election day, 27 states had already held their own presidential primary or caucus, passing over California – one of the most expensive places to buy political advertising time in the nation.

The state’s most successful early presidential primary was in February 2008, when 57.7% of registered voters turned out in a race won by Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain. That was the highest voter turnout for a California presidential primary since 1980. But even then, enough states had already voted that the relative impact of the early election was small.

Last year, 47.7% of registered voters cast ballots in the state’s June presidential primary.

Several Democratic lawmakers praised Brown’s decision to allow another try at the early primary.

“Candidates will not be able to ignore the largest, most diverse state in the nation as they seek our country’s highest office,” said Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

The bill does not change the scheduled 2018 statewide primary, which will be held in June.

Brown has one other closely watched bill on his desk with the potential for national political impact: A proposal to deny access to the California ballot for any presidential candidate who won’t release personal tax returns to the public – a not-so-subtle jab at Trump’s refusal to do so in 2016. The governor has until Oct. 15 to act on that, and other, bills passed by the Legislature before it adjourned earlier this month.

UPDATES:

2:54 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information on California's past attempts to move up its primary, as well as details about the 2016 campaign and comment from Secretary Padilla.

This article was originally published at 1:48 p.m.

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