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Should California move up its primary to become a bigger player in deciding presidential elections?

Should California move up its primary to become a bigger player in deciding presidential elections?
"A state as large and diverse as California should not be an afterthought" in presidential politics, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla says. (Los Angeles Times)

California voters had virtually no voice in who was nominated for president last year. That's plain wrong. And hopefully it can be made right for 2020.

Yes, that's an eon away, although for millions of voters in this deep-blue state, the next presidential election probably can't come soon enough.

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Regardless, the system needs to be fixed long before the next White House wannabes surface and inevitably politicize what should be a rational decision about California's role in the nominating process.

Just ask yourself: Were you really happy about the nominations of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Millions were not, I suspect.

But Trump and Clinton had the Republican and Democratic nominations practically sewed up — thanks to some pampered pipsqueak states — before Californians were heard from in the June primary.

They probably would have been nominated anyway. Trump and Clinton won in California's June primary and may well have been the victors even if we'd voted in March.

But that's not the point. The point is that our views didn't matter. By the time we got to the party, no one cared. Everyone was leaving for the conventions.

It's a sorry system of democracy that disregards the opinions of nearly 11% of the nation's electorate.

It's our own fault, however, for scheduling such a late primary when the political parties inexplicably allow the nominating circus to begin while people are still taking out their Christmas trees.

This is not a new story, of course. California has been fretting about being ignored for decades.

It has been roughly half a century since California primaries were very compelling.

In 1964, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater moved the California GOP to the right by beating New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and clinching the Republican presidential nomination. In 1972, anti-Vietnam War candidate Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota bagged the Democratic nomination by beating former Vice President Hubert Humphrey in California.

Afterward, the parties got "reform" happy and junked California's winner-take-all primaries, devaluing their importance. Convention delegates were parceled out more evenly. So there was less incentive for candidates to wage highly expensive, all-out campaigns here. Plus, other states moved up their primaries to gain clout, rendering California's June contest a "who cares?" blob.

For four presidential elections starting in 1996, we tried early primaries in an effort to be a player, not merely a spectator in the nosebleed seats. Results were mixed. Usually the nominations were still all but decided before we voted. In 2008, California did toss Hillary Clinton a life raft that kept her campaign afloat for three more months.

In 2012, we went back to the June primary and national irrelevance except as an ATM machine loaded with mega-rich campaign donors.

Now there's a proposed new twist to the early primary idea. In three previous stabs at influence, the presidential and state primaries for legislative and congressional seats were combined in March. Then the state contests were returned to June in the non-presidential years. In 2008, however, separate primaries were held for president in February and state offices in June.

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Secretary of State Alex Padilla wants to move all primaries permanently to the third Tuesday in March, right after the spoiled voters of Iowa and New Hampshire go first. If other states got antsy and moved their primaries ahead of California's, the governor could push ours up further.

Holding all primaries in March rather than flipping back to June in non-presidential years would eliminate voter confusion, Padilla contends. It also would increase voter turnout. And combining the presidential and state primaries, rather than splitting them, would save about $100 million.

"A state as large and diverse as California should not be an afterthought" in presidential politics, Padilla says. "The concerns of California voters should be heard a lot more by the candidates."

The legislation, SB 568 by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), is scheduled for its first vote in the Senate elections committee Tuesday.

"It's good for both parties and good for the state," says Republican consultant Rob Stutzman. "This should be one of those nonpartisan issues. At some point, the White House should have to think about California a little differently."

Democratic strategist Bill Carrick says, "I'm for doing it to see if we can get some relevance." But he cautions: "What I've learned from being in on reforms is that there are a lot of unintended consequences that pinch you in the rear."

Regardless, we should take the risk. It's time to stop being shoved around by the weenie states and allow Californians to vote when it matters.

But there are some questionable trade-offs:

Legislators and members of Congress would be running in primaries before they even completed two-thirds of their terms.

Incumbents would benefit from early primaries because there'd be less time for their challengers to raise money and get known.

Candidates — including for governor and other statewide offices — would have to start running full throttle around Halloween, stretching out the campaign season way beyond public tolerance.

California really should pop for the extra money and hold a separate March presidential primary and keep the state contests in June.

On the plus side for a California governor or U.S. senator, it would give them an early boost in reaching for the presidency.

If Gov. Jerry Brown had only been so fortunate all those times he ran … he still would have lost.

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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