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The Endless Season

July 30, 2002

It hasn't been easy restoring reason to California's primary election mess. State Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) proposed in February moving the first round of balloting for state and local offices from early March to the first week in September. But county and state election officials balked. They said a September primary did not leave them enough time to prepare for the general election.

They had a point. The counties must meet a number of legal deadlines for distribution of the statewide ballot pamphlet and sample local ballots, and for mailing out absentee ballots.

Johnson changed his bill, SB 1975, to call for an early August primary. If 25 other states can hold their primaries in August and September, why not California? But the election officials dug in their heels.

Now Johnson has proposed moving the state primary to early June, where it was for more than half a century. Secretary of State Bill Jones says he can support that. But county registrars of voters remain stubbornly opposed to separate state and local primary elections in presidential years because of the cost, an estimated $40 million statewide.

If money is the only remaining concern, then the state should be willing to pick up some or all of the cost. State and federal governments already are spending millions to help the counties buy modern voting machines, a reaction to the Florida voting snafu. Johnson still hopes to negotiate an August date. He should continue that effort.

The bill passed the Senate in May and won approval of the Assembly's Elections Committee. It awaits a crucial hearing and vote in the Appropriations Committee.

Presidential politics caused this mess. With its traditional June ballot, California became irrelevant to the nominating process as other states voted earlier. The Legislature moved the primary to March 26 in 1996, but other states skipped ahead. California moved again, to the first week in March, in 2000. Once again, others leapfrogged. In 2004, the primary season will start even earlier in many states.

The only way out is to separate the state and national primaries in presidential years, holding a presidential primary at the whim of the political parties and balloting for state and local offices in June or later.

This year, California's primary was the first in the nation, on March 5. The turnout was a record low. Nearly five months later, the general election is still--absurdly--more than three months away. That's no way to treat a voter.

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