SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California may hold its presidential primary elections three months earlier after lawmakers passed bills Thursday to increase the influence of the nation's most populous and diverse state.
Supporters of the bills say the state's June primary doesn't give California voters enough say in who becomes president because it occurs so late on the calendar. The state's 2016 primary occurred after Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had already become the presumptive nominees for Republican and Democratic parties.
An earlier primary would give Californians greater influence in the nomination decisions, said Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, who authored the Assembly bill.
"California has largely been a non-factor when it comes to selecting candidates," the San Francisco-area Democrat said. "AB84 will enable more Californians to be politically relevant in presidential election cycles."
Both houses of the state Legislature approved measures to change the state's primary date from June to March. The Senate bill would move the primary to the third Tuesday that month, while the Assembly bill would move the election to the first or second Tuesday.
One of the bills must pass both houses and be signed by the governor for the date to change.
The bills would move both state and presidential primaries up during presidential election years. The legislation approved in the Senate, SB568, would give the governor the option to make the primary even earlier if other states jump in front.
Primary contests in midterm election years — when there is not a presidential contest — would still be held in June under both bills.
Sen. Ricardo Lara, who authored the Senate bill, says the state's current primary comes too late and that holding it earlier would make candidates more likely to address issues important to Californians.
"We are dead last when it comes to our presidential primary calendar," the Democrat from Bell Gardens said. "It's time that Californians have a better voice in who is leading our country."
California's primary hasn't mattered since 1980, Lara said.
"With this bill, candidates from all parties will have to spend more time in California," Lara said. "The current primary election system stifles California's influence in the most critical election years."
Despite lawmakers' intentions, an earlier primary won't guarantee candidates campaign more in the state, particularly because California's expansive size makes it an expensive place to campaign, said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California.
Assemblyman Matthew Harper said he opposes holding an earlier primary.
"Earlier is not necessarily more influential," the Huntington Beach Republican said, adding that the state's relatively late primary could allow Californians to cast the final deciding votes of the nominating contests.
The Assembly bill passed 52-20 mostly along party lines, with just two Republicans supporting the measure and one Democrat opposing it. The vote was more split in the Senate where SB568 passed 32-6 with seven Republicans voting for it and six voting against.
Republicans have less of an incentive to change the electoral process because they won the general election, Pitney said.
"After you win you don't change the rules," Pitney said, adding that it's "no accident" the bills to change the primary date were from Democrats. "The losing side usually wants to rewrite the rulebook."