This was the first time since the 1940’s that California has held two primaries in one year. In their zeal to place term limit-extending Proposition 93 on an early February ballot, lawmakers split California’s presidential primary date from the lower-profile legislative primaries and guaranteed that few would show for the separate statewide vote in June.
If termed-out legislators had pulled off a win in February with Prop 93, they would have cake-walked to re-election yesterday in California’s lowest-turnout primary election in history.
Final numbers aren’t yet tallied, but preliminary reports show record low turnout across the state. Here in Los Angeles County, voter turnout is estimated at an abysmal 16.43%. That’s not even a third of the 56.7% who cast a vote in the February presidential primary, and is a drastic fall from primary turnout in other non-presidential years. 2002 saw 27.2% and 34.27% came out in 2006. (See LA County’s election results for the rundown.)
The Legislature’s decision to split the presidential and legislative primaries left a small minority of Californians to choose most of the Legislature for the next two years.
Politicians argued at the time that we had to move California’s primary or our presidential vote would be irrelevant. Some have since said that a strong showing in California was the only thing that kept Clinton in the Democratic race after Super Tuesday. It might also be argued that a March date, or leaving the primary in June, would have made California the kingmaker. John McCain may not have stitched up the Republican nomination as quickly without an early landslide of California support. But even if the move had meant that Californians got to hand-pick both parties’ nominees, one thing should be clear: Statewide races suffer when they’re severed from attention-grabbing national politics.
Legislators in Sacramento should learn from the mistake and quickly return legislative and presidential primaries to the same ballot. It needs to happen now before new political considerations get in the way (a big Senate race is coming up in 2010 after all). And, though it won’t help this year, cutting the $80 or $90 million cost of that extra election won’t hurt the next round of budget calculus either.