Incumbent protection likely biggest effect of California moving presidential primary to March

California's SB 568, which has been sent to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature, would move the presidential primaries from June to the first Tuesday after the first Monday of March.

There’s an old saying applied to many business decisions reflecting the tradeoffs that must be made: “Fast, good, or cheap—pick two.” For presidential primaries in California, the saying might be modified: “Competitive, influential, or cheap—pick two.” The California legislature is trying to plan a presidential primary that is both cheap and influential, but doing so would make most elections in California less competitive. At its outer bounds, that may be unconstitutional, but the answer on this question is far from clear.

California had for some time held its presidential primaries in March. In 2008, it pushed that primary back to February and was part of a glut of states that held primaries on a “Super Tuesday.” But California voters didn’t exercise outsized influence because so many other states were holding primaries the same day. And a primary that early was costly—it cost about $100 million to hold that primary, and voters would still have to go to the polls twice more, once for congressional and state primaries in the summer and once for the general election in November.

Rather than burdening voters with three trips to the polls in one year, California consolidated the presidential primary with its June state primaries. That saved money in the state budget, too. But it came at a political cost—one of influence. By June, there is little influence left for California voters in a presidential primary. In 2016, for instance, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had all but secured their parties’ nominations.

Of course, by the first week in March, many candidates have already dropped out of the race after Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada have voted. But, the opportunity to influence the selection of the presidential candidate is certainly at least somewhat greater in March than June.

Then came a couple of complications. A March presidential primary would return to a third election in that year. A concern is voter fatigue, but the greater concern for California is another nine-figure election. So the legislature chose to push all primaries back to March in presidential years. That yielded some uncertainty in non-presidential years and might confuse voters or cause irregularities by having primaries back in June for those off-cycle years, so the legislature then chose to put all primaries in March.

Just a handful of states in 2016 had congressional primaries in March: as far as I could discern, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas were the only states that hold congressional primaries that early. Many jurisdictions hold primaries much closer to the general election, often in September.

There are good reasons for later primaries. They give potential candidates a longer opportunity to consider challenging an incumbent or entering the race for an open seat. They also allow voters to consider more political information about a candidate, particularly an incumbent, before voting.

A March primary in California, however, means that challengers must file by the December before, and enter the race (and begin collecting signatures) well before that. For a two-year House race, that's a very long lead time. Granted, in many contemporary cases, candidates for office frequently announce their candidates well before this time period. But that is out of choice, not necessity.

It also has the effect of insulating incumbents. Incumbents will have much more limited political accountability if candidates must file so early. If an incumbent sees no serious competitors, that incumbent may feel sufficiently insulated and politically unaccountable to act without regard to voters' preferences. The earlier the field is set, the more confident the incumbent can be, either at the filing deadline in December or after the primary in March.

It can have very practical effects. Assuming the law took effect for 2018, for instance, a sitting member of the House could shoot someone at the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day in 2018, but might not face any new competitors in the March primary or the November election. Competitors could only enter the race for 2020. It's a practical effect that redounds to the benefit of incumbents.

A further complicating factor is California’s “top two” primary. The top two voter-getters in the March primary will face off in the November general election. That might be two candidates from the same party, or a fairly marginal candidate in a race without much likelihood that the incumbent would lose, further ossifying the effects of an early primary and insulating the incumbent.

Here's where the constitutional element comes into play. In Anderson v. Celebrezze in 1983, the Supreme Court concluded that a March filing deadline for a November presidential election was too severe a burden, too stringent a ballot access requirement, to withstand constitutional scrutiny. The case included some qualifications about one state impacting a presidential election, which may, in turn, limit its value in applying the precedent in quite the same way with congressional or state offices.

But, importantly, California's top-two system limits opportunities in ways these other states with early filing deadlines don't have. Because other states may permit independent candidates to secure ballot access much closer in time to the election (because they aren't participating in a primary), there are more opportunities than in California, which will require filing in December the year before an election.

The Ninth Circuit in Washington State Republican Party v. Washington State Grange in 2012 approved of the burdens on minor-party candidates in Washington's top-two system, but emphasized that the "primary is in August, not March." And that was a concern raised by the Libertarian Party, not an independent candidate (i.e., one who was not seeking a nomination from a party).

We shall see if anyone raises a sufficient constitutional challenge to this early primary. But it's worth emphasizing that the constitutional issues, while present, are only one concern. The more significant, practical concern remains, in my view, the increased insulation of incumbents who seek reelection.