A better primary proposal

Today (March 1), the state Legislature is expected to pass a bill moving presidential primary elections to Feb. 5. That means in 2008 voters will be asked to cast ballots three times: in February, again in June (state office primaries) and yet again in November (general election).

The ostensible reason for this change is to make California more relevant in the presidential-candidate selection process. That may or may not happen. (A similar 1996 effort that moved the primary to March failed.) What is certain is that it will greatly depress voter turnout for the June primary, among other harmful impacts.

The underlying reason for the change—as we mentioned in our Feb. 1 editorial “One election too many"—is that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has worked out a deal with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and Senate leader Don Perata that would allow him to put a redistricting reform measure on the February 2008 ballot. In return, Nuñez and Perata would have his support for another measure on the ballot, one that would extend term limits for lame-duck legislators like them in time to run again that year.

All of these machinations ignore the bigger picture, which is that other vote-rich states are following suit and moving up their primaries too. The result will be a front-loaded presidential nominating process that could be over in as little as three weeks—nine months before the general election.

There is an alternative to this race to be first and biggest, and it comes from the group representing the very people who conduct elections in 39 states: the National Association of Secretaries of State. At its national convention on Feb. 9, the group issued a statement asking the Republican and Democratic parties to put the brakes on the nominating process and offered a proposal for doing so.

The proposal would divide states into four regions—East, South, Midwest and West—and hold four primaries, each a month apart, between March and June. All states within a region would vote on the same day, and the order of the elections would rotate every presidential year. New Hampshire and Iowa, the states that historically have held the earliest primaries, would be exceptions, voting first and second, respectively, before the regional primaries.

The arrangement would be good for candidates, who could campaign in the two small states before focusing on a single region, and it would be good for voters, who would have plenty of time to get to know the candidates and make up their minds. And, with a rotating order, it would be fair in the long run.

Ultimately, it’s up to state lawmakers to decide when primaries are held. The NASS proposal deserves serious consideration, however, especially now that the process is descending into what one secretary of state, William Galvin of Massachusetts, described as “total chaos.”