By Larry Levine | Special to CALmatters
By the time the polls open for the California presidential primary election in March 2020, hundreds of thousands of Democrats will already have voted by mail for candidates who no longer are in the race.
Within two weeks after the California primary, while late absentee ballots and provisional ballots are still being counted, other candidates will drop out, rendering the votes of more Californians irrelevant.
It’s all because the state once again moved its primary election earlier in the process in a quest to recapture the clout it once had. That clout came from the winner-take-all nature of the process, when a first-place finisher would walk off with all the state’s hundreds of delegates.
That no longer is allowed. How the delegates will be apportioned in 2020 has not yet been finally set, according to party officials. But it is likely to be based on how candidates perform in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts, as has been the case in recent years.
Here’s how the situation shapes up for 2020:
- Election Day in California will be March 3. Absentee ballots will arrive in voters’ homes beginning Feb. 3.
- The next day, Iowa will hold its first-in-the-nation caucuses.
- Eight days later, New Hampshire will hold a primary election.
- Nevada Democrats will caucus Feb. 22 and South Carolina will hold a primary on Feb. 29.
As has been the case in recent years, poor showings in the early contests will cause some candidates to withdraw, but their names will remain on the California ballot and they already will have received votes from absentee voters.
Eight other states will vote the same day as California and nine more states are scheduled to vote within two weeks after. At each stop, additional candidates will withdraw and the votes of more Californians will have been cast for candidates who pulled out before or soon after Californians vote.
To compound the issue, absentee voting is all but certain to reach new heights in 2020. Perhaps as much as 60 percent of the Democratic ballots cast will be sent by mail. In some counties there will be no other way to vote.
Early indications are that 10 or more candidates will qualify for the California Democratic Primary ballot. As many as half of them can be expected to drop out before all the ballots are counted in California, perhaps even more.
California last moved to an earlier primary in February 2008.
There were eight candidates on the Democratic ballot, including five who had dropped out. Their total of 280,316 votes represented 5.21 percent of the Democrats who voted in that election.
In 2004 the election was held in March. Five of nine candidates on the ballot already had withdrawn, taking with them nearly 9 percent of the votes cast.
In 2000, the election was in March with just three candidates. Then Vice President Al Gore won easily, and in 1996 President Bill Clinton cruised through a March California Primary on his way to re-election.
The California conundrum comes down to this: vote early and know the votes of large numbers of people will count for nothing, or vote later and have a tremendous amount of clout if the race is still unsettled, or none at all if any candidate has garnered enough delegates in earlier-voting states to secure the party’s presidential nomination.
By continually moving the primary election date, the Legislature is attempting to hit the moving target of relevance based on circumstances that can neither be controlled or known. But if the past is any guide to the future, we can expect them to continue to try.
Larry Levine is a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.
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