California may move up its primary, shaking up 2020 presidential race

FILE: Voters enter a polling place inside Barrio Action Youth & Family Center in El Sereno on June 7, 2016 during the California primary election.
FILE: Voters enter a polling place inside Barrio Action Youth & Family Center in El Sereno on June 7, 2016 during the California primary election.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

The California Legislature is moving forward on a plan to switch the state's presidential primary election from June to March, a move that would change the national strategy for presidential candidates but has unclear implications for local voters. 

S.B. 568 appears to have broad support among lawmakers. Final votes in the Senate and Assembly are expected by Friday; it would then advance to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature. 

With Brown's checkoff, the statewide primary would shift to the Tuesday after the first Monday in March, giving California among the earliest primary elections of all 50 states. In 2016, California was one of the last in the country to hold its primary, leaving some voters feeling left out of the process. 

Over the past few decades, California has ping-ponged between early primaries in February or March and primaries in June. Officials held the most recent early presidential primary in February 2008. In that year, Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama in California's Democratic primary, but failed to win the party's nomination. Voter turnout in the presidential primary hit 57.7 percent of registered voters, among the better turnouts in recent years. 

But early primaries have not always led to higher voter participation rates in California. 

"Particularly in primaries, the big majority of voters are still white and higher income," said Karla Zombro, a field director at the nonprofit California Calls. The organization focuses on mobilizing and educating voters of color, young voters and voters with low incomes.

These demographic groups are largely seen as having major potential at the polls, but have not showed up in large numbers in California.

Zombro believes an early primary has the potential to make voter education and engagement more challenging for the voters she works with, particularly in down ballot races.

"There's a concern that in a presidential year, you kind of suck all the air out of the room, and everything is focused on the presidential," she said. 

Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, said her organization supports the early primary bill.

"One out of eight voters lives in California and yet we have virtually no say in the outcome of the presidential election because everyone presumes to know how we're going to vote, so there's no competition here," she said. "I'm happy to see this change appears to be likely to be made."

Alexander said while she doesn't know if moving the primary to March will impact voter participation rates, she does think it will increase enthusiasm among voters.

"I would like to see California have more of a voice in selecting who the nominees are," she said. 

The state is often viewed as more valuable for fundraising because of the wealth in locations like Silicon Valley and Hollywood. But an earlier primary would force presidential candidates to wage a costly campaign for votes in populous California.

Politico reported the move to an early primary could benefit two Californians who may run for president in 2020 — California's junior senator Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, neither of whom have announced their intentions to run for higher office.

S.B. 568 was introduced by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens). Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo) is the principal co-author. The bill is sponsored by Secretary of State Alex Padilla.