Democrats in the California Legislature, still smarting from the election of President Trump, embraced a pair of proposed laws early Saturday that they hope would reshape the 2020 presidential contest in the image of America’s most populous state.
The two measures taken together are perhaps the strongest effort in years by state lawmakers seeking to erase California’s long status as an electoral afterthought.
“It's time for Californians to have a louder voice about who is going to lead our country,” state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), said during a legislative hearing on his bill to move the state’s 2020 presidential primary from June 2 to March 3.
The hope, supporters said, is that presidential candidates will spend significant time campaigning in the Golden State to try to win the state’s sizable share of the total delegates needed to secure the nomination of either the Democratic or Republican parties.
More provocative was a second proposal crafted by Democrats, Senate Bill 149, that could ban Trump from appearing on California’s primary ballot if he doesn’t provide a copy of his income tax returns to state elections officials. While the mandate would apply to all presidential hopefuls, its authors admit the idea came to them after Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns in 2016.
“Making your tax returns public is a pretty low-threshold to meet,” state Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) said in a statement before adjournment. “The American people shouldn’t be in the dark about their president’s financial entanglements.”
Both bills now head to Gov. Jerry Brown, who hasn’t commented on either proposal. Neither of them may be a slam dunk, either in practice or in principle.
Critics of SB 149 have argued for months that imposing a new threshold for presidential candidates to access the California primary ballot might not pass legal muster. They’ve cited court cases related to state laws governing congressional candidate requirements in other states as an ominous precedent, though the rulings may not be applicable to presidential contenders. Supporters cited their own litany of cases they claim will allow California to set the new rules regarding tax returns.
The bill to jump ahead in the line of states holding presidential primaries, Senate Bill 568, is hardly a new idea. California first tried to assert its presidential relevance with a March primary in 1996. But by the time that election was held, 27 states had already held their own presidential primary or caucus. The candidates passed over California — one of America’s most expensive places to buy political advertising time. In 1992, in Brown’s third race for the presidency, the primary was held on June 2. He lost the state to Bill Clinton.
The state’s most successful experiment with an early presidential primary was in February 2008, when Democrat Hillary Clinton was her party’s pick over then-Sen. Barack Obama. The state was part of so-called Super Tuesday, and some 2.4 million more Californians cast ballots in that primary than in 2004. Even that time, however, almost two dozen states had already voted.
Persuading Brown to sign the bill might not be easy. In 2011, the governor signed legislation that permanently moved all primary elections — for presidential and state contests — back to early June, citing a lack of success at generating presidential interest and due to the high cost of holding separate primaries for president and statewide races.
Under current expectations about the 2020 election calendar, an early March primary would make California the fifth state to pick a favorite in the presidential race after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Those states have a special place in party politics, in part due to tradition. Some have speculated such a change could help a Californian who may run for the White House, given the buzz surrounding the possible aspirations of Democrats such as Sen. Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The state’s diverse electorate would also be far different from the states whose contests are usually held early in the season.
But it may not sit well with the national political parties. An early primary would flout party rules governing the primary season. Other states that have attempted to exert influence over the process by shifting their primaries have faced punishment — a loss of delegates to the summer convention — for holding contests too close to the traditional early states.
The bill to move the date of California’s primary is also unique in that it’s the most sweeping change of its kind ever considered. Even non-presidential primary elections would be moved to early March — statewide, legislative and congressional candidates would also face voters before the arrival of spring.
In legislative debate on Friday, opponents said that would force candidates to formally file their paperwork as early as December, thus scaring off would-be challengers to incumbents.
“Some of you may love that, but I don’t think it’s right for the voters,” Assemblyman Matt Harper (R-Huntington Beach) said. “I think it’s incredibly short-sighted.”
Both bills were written in the early days of 2017, at the peak of Democratic outrage over Trump’s historic victory. And both could potentially hurt the Republican president’s reelection effort. Though he won the state’s June 2016 contest, California’s primary voters in 2020 may not look favorably on Trump.
(Unlike California’s top-two primary, with all candidates for federal and state offices appearing on a single ballot in California, presidential primaries are still segregated by party.)
A statewide poll in July by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that only 25% of adults surveyed approved of how the president is doing his job. Last November, Trump lost the general election in California to Clinton by some 4.2 million votes.
The other bill, a mandate for Trump to provide state officials with a copy of his income tax returns, could force a showdown of unprecedented proportions. The president’s steadfast refusal to do so broke with a national tradition of major party candidates dating back to 1973. (The president has said he did not do so because he was facing an audit.) Trump could challenge the California law in court, or he could simply skip running in a state where he could already face a tough contest.
As the tax returns proposal made its way through the state Capitol this year, Republicans demanded that Democrats should hold themselves to the same standard. Why, they wondered aloud in committee and floor debates, did the bill not require high-profile statewide candidates to do the same? Brown himself declined to reveal his tax returns in both the 2010 and the 2014 gubernatorial races.
“If it’s good enough for a presidential candidate, it’s certainly good enough for a governor, and all five constitutional offices,” state Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) said during a Senate floor debate in May.
Brown has until Oct. 15 to decide whether he’ll sign or veto either of the bills. The two measures were part of the final rush of legislative action in Sacramento before lawmakers adjourned for the year.