COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

A larger turnout if Tuesday were primary day?

Tuesday is Primary Election Day in California -- or it would have been in any even-numbered year before 1996. And, the miserable voter turnout in this year's primary on March 5 now has some lawmakers and activists plumping for California primaries to return to the traditional first Tuesday in June, while others are looking to split primary dates between March and August, with a presidential-only vote on the earlier date.

The early date of this year's vote, they claim, was the chief reason barely 30 percent of eligible voters cast primary ballots. They are wrong.

Boredom and negativism were the two major reasons few voters bothered going to the polls in March. There was also the return to a closed primary. The date had little or nothing to do with it.

The open, early primaries of 1998 and 2000, when anyone could vote for candidates in any party, even switching parties while moving down the ballot from office to office, produced record turnouts two and four years ago. Taking those options away left more than 40 percent of voters -- every registered Democrat -- with few meaningful choices last March, when there were no significant contests in that party.

Lack of choice produced boredom and a dearth of motivation, which then was reinforced by an almost complete absence of interesting initiative measures. Only one initiative qualified in March, and most prospective voters saw that proposal to soften term limits as a self-serving plan to feather the nests of legislators. In short, a giant chunk of the electorate felt they had nothing to vote for, so why bother?

Add to this the stridently negative tone set by the television commercials of several major candidates, including Gov. Gray Davis and Republicans Richard Riordan and William Simon Jr. The ads left a bad taste in the mouths of many voters who did have significant choices to make, registered Republicans and independents.

Anyone who thinks a move to June or August could have resolved even one of those barriers to a large vote is plain naive. A later primary would not have produced more initiatives: new legal restrictions on petition carriers guarantee California will see fewer of those in the future, and that almost all that do turn up will be the pet causes of big-money interests or wealthy individuals able to send petition circulators door to door.

A later primary also would not have given Democrats any more choices, and it would simply have delayed the negative ads by a couple of months.

So why move the primary day?

The early March date now in use was set in 1999, aiming to regain the influence Californians exercised over presidential nominations until 1972. The state lost that clout starting in 1976, when many other states opted to set primaries months before Californians could vote.

It worked, and even though California's regained influence is again threatened by a new national Democratic Party rule allowing states to hold presidential primaries as early as mid-February, the March date guarantees much more face time from national candidates than would be likely in June.

Some lobbyists have lately suggested skipping both March and June in non-presidential years like this one, opting for August or mid-September instead.

But those dates conflict not only with the opening of schools and the frantic final days of legislative sessions, they would also leave the election season too short for proper examination of the candidates. It's usually only after a candidate wins his or her party's nomination for major office that he or she gets close scrutiny. A general election season of less than three months would shorten the time voters get to evaluate candidates to the point where they'd see almost nothing about office-seekers except TV commercials made and financed by the candidates.

Which means there's no real reason to make any switch at this time, even to the traditional early June date in non-presidential years. In truth, the March primary hasn't yet been tested at all in off-year elections: the voter apathy of last March -- the first non-presidential March vote -- was justified both by the contents of the ballot and the negativism of the candidates.

It said less about the date and more about the harm done by lawsuits from political party hacks and "big-box" stores that killed the open primary and threaten the lifeblood of the initiative system. -30-


Elias is author of "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It." His email address is thomas.elias@sddt.com.

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