California’s Late Voter Blues

An Editorial

The Flag of California

Today is primary election day in my home state of California. It’s time to go to the polls to decide who will be the candidates we have to pick from in the actual election in November. There are plenty of important contests I will be casting my ballot in this year. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will be retiring this year, and there are 34 people trying to claim her seat. Nine candidates are trying to claim the seat currently held by outgoing Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.). There are also contests for the state legislature that I will be paying attention to, and a ballot initiative regarding whether state legislators suspended for misconduct should keep getting their pay while suspended.

Republicans in California, however, have one less reason to show up to the polls today. Arguably the most important primary election contest, who will be the GOP’s presidential candidate, has already been decided. Donald Trump has already won the party’s nomination. What point is there for California Republicans to cast ballots for president now?

Indeed, in spite of Bernie Sanders’s insistence on contesting the election to the very last, the media keeps reporting that the Democratic nomination is almost certainly going to go to Hillary Clinton, as she has such a commanding lead that all she has to do to win is get enough primary votes to secure just 26 more delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

In short, the 39 million Americans who live in California have been cheated out of a decent say in our presidential election because our state is one of the last to vote.

As we have previously mentioned here on Cat Flag, primary elections are a fairly recent invention. Up until the early 20th century, party leaders chose the candidates that voters would be able to pick from. To help reduce corruption, reformers convinced America’s political parties to let ordinary party members pick the candidate. However, elections in the United States are mostly handled by state governments. The federal government sets the date of the general election as the Tuesday after the first Monday in November and protects the civil rights of voters, but otherwise generally leaves the states to do their thing. Also, political parties are essentially private clubs, and can set many of their own rules.

Thus, instead of having a single, national primary contest to complement the single, national general election, primaries are held at different times in different states, and in a few cases the same state will hold the primaries for different parties on different days.

The first primary contest in 2016 was held on February 1. So why is California’s primary vote so late this year? Well, in the 1990s, California moved its primary all the way up to March. Then in 2004, our state government decided that all we had done by voting so early was encourage dozens of other states to vote even earlier than us, in a mad scramble to vote first and have the most say in who becomes the presidential nominee. After all, nobody wants to go to the polls after the candidate has been selected, and such a huge state voting so early just made other, less populous states want to vote before us.

The closest we get to a “national primary” is Super Tuesday, a day when several states manage to agree to all hold their primaries on the same date. However, which states participate varies from year to year, and there is little co-ordination between them.

I just don’t understand why we all vote on one day nationwide in the general election but each state votes on a different day in the primaries. When each state jockeys to vote first, the election cycle grows longer and longer, and that causes campaigns to become more and more expensive, and that makes candidates even more and more dependent on super PACs and on campaign contributions from wealthy donors, interest groups, and lobbyists. Not to mention how exhausting it must be to be on the campaign trail for months on end, especially since many presidential candidates tend to be state governors or members of Congress who have to neglect their duties during this time to campaign. It also guarantees that some states will be voting last, because someone has to vote last, and the odds of the presidential primaries still being a contest at that point are slim.

It’s not like it’s such a great thing to be in an early-voting state, either. Just ask anyone from Iowa, the state that has written into its laws that it will always vote before any other state. Candidates flock there for months on end, getting photo op after photo op and dragging ordinary Iowans away from their daily lives to be little more than props. Also, don’t be surprised in an election year if your friends and family in Iowa stop answering their calls, they are simply ignoring the deluge of calls they are getting to urge them to vote for this or that candidate.

So, as far as I can tell, nobody benefits from the current system. Why do we keep doing it, then? Why don’t we have a national primary, just as we have a national general election?

I think it’s just inertia. We’ve been voting this way for years, we’re used to it, and we only have to deal with it every fourth year so we don’t bother complaining about it or demanding that it be changed when there isn’t an election on. Well, I say it’s time we started demanding a change. I say we keep up the pressure to reform our primary elections after the polls close.

If we really want every vote to matter, if we want to reduce the power and influence of money on our elections, and we want to give all Americans a fair shake when it comes to choosing our presidential candidates, we need a single, national election day. No, it won’t fix all the problems with our elections, but it’s a step in the right direction, and one that just doesn’t seem that hard. The current state-by-state system isn’t working for anyone, so let’s stop accepting the unacceptable. Let’s all tell our state governments and political parties that we want a single, national primary election day.

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One Response to California’s Late Voter Blues

  1. Pingback: The Strange Politics in the History of U.S. Presidential Elections | Cat Flag

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