Early Primary
On September 28, 1998, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill requiring that the state's presidential primary be held on the first Tuesday in March--the earliest possible date under the Democratic rules.  California has long held its primaries on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June.  In 1996 the state experimented with moving its primary to the fourth Tuesday in March, but even with that advanced date both parties had essentially selected their presidential nominees by the time of the California primary.  Wilson stated, "Our political clout will finally be worthy of our economic and cultural importance to America."  (California's push forward prompted a number of other states to move their primaries ahead as well).

Blanket Primary
On March 7 California voters faced a presidential primary ballot that had 23 names on it.  This was the first California presidential primary conducted under the blanket primary system, put into place when voters adopted Proposition 198 in March 1996.   There was considerable speculation about the message that would be sent if Sen. John McCain finished ahead of Gov. George W. Bush in the blanket primary vote but lost in the delegate selection vote.  McCain could then claim to have won the primary, but Bush would have won all the Republican delegates.  Pundits talked up all sorts of scenarios about what might happen next.  In any event, Bush finished ahead of McCain by more than 300,000 votes out of more than 7 million cast.

Under the blanket primary, any voter can vote for any candidate to be the party's nominee--that applies for races from president to state assembly.  One observer has noted that this amounts to a "free love" theory of voting.  Another has said the system essentially means that candidates must conduct two general election campaigns.  The distinction between a blanket primary and an open primary is sometimes glossed over.  In an open primary, the voter selects from candidates of one party only; he or she is thus required to make some kind of affiliation to the party, even if it is only requesting a ballot of a particular party on election day; in many state the voter may also have to make a pledge or an oath.  In addition to California, the blanket primary system is used in Alaska and Washington state, but those states select delegates through caucuses.

The parties strongly object to blanket primary method, saying that they ought to be able to determine how their own nominees for various offices are selected.  More technically, party leaders argue that the blanket primary "undermines our associational rights under the First Amendment."  At the presidential level, neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party recognizes delegations selected through a blanket primary process. 

As a result, it took some finessing to come up with a workable presidential primary.  The California Legislature placed Proposition 3, the "Save the Presidential Primary Act of 1998," on the November 1998 ballot.  The measure would have made for two ballots, an official primary ballot and a partisan ballot for selecting delegates to the nominating conventions.  Supporters voiced dire warnings about what would happen if voters failed to pass Prop. 3.  (For example the official California Voter Guide contained the following arguments from supporters: "...California voters will NOT be allowed to participate in the Year 2000 national presidential nominating process.  Without Proposition 3, California voters will have their VOTING POWER STRIPPED AWAY!"  "If Proposition 3 is not passed, then THEY [the parties] MAY ELIMINATE VOTER PRIMARIES ALTOGETHER AND USE A CAUCUS, CONVENTION OR BACKROOM PROCESS to select California presidential delegates.")  Ornery voters rejected the measure anyhow.  A month later Sen. John Burton introduced a bill in the legislature, SB 100, to require the Secretary of State to report two separate tabulations, one for party-only votes in the presidential primary and the overall blanket vote tally.  The measure passed the legislature in late April 1999 and Governor Gray Davis approved it on May 3.

While the legislature's action solved the problem of getting the national parties to recognize California's convention delegations, it left in place the blanket primary, affecting hundreds of races around the state.  The parties continued their fight against the blanket primary system, taking the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Oral arguments took place on April 24, 2000.  On June 26, 2000 the Court ruled against the system on the grounds that it violated "a political party's First Amendment right of free association."

Time Line: The Blanket Primary and the Presidential Primary in California
March 26, 1996 California voters approve Proposition 198, the so called "Open Primary Act" by a margin of 59.5% to 40.5%.  A major sponsor of the initiative is Rep. Tom Campbell, a moderate Republican who lost the 1992 Republican U.S. Senate primary to conservative Bruce Herschensohn.
Late July 1997 California Democratic Party, California Republican Party, Libertarian Party of California and Peace and Freedom Party v. Bill Jones, Secretary of State of California, and Californians for an Open Primary, et al. argued in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.
November 17, 1997 U.S. District Judge David Levi upholds Proposition 198.
June 2, 1998 Primary conducted under blanket primary rules.
November 3, 1998 California voters defeat Proposition 3, the "Save the Presidential Primary Act of 1998," placed on the ballot by the California Legislature (SB 1505), by a margin of 53.8% to 46.2%.
December 9, 1999 Sen. John Burton introduces SB 100 to amend the state Elections Code so that the Secretary of State must report a separate tabulation for party-only votes in the presidential primary in addition to the overall blanket vote tally.
March 4, 1999 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirms the District Court judgment.
May 3, 1999 Gov. Gray Davis approves SB 100.  (The measure passed 66-2 in the Assembly and 33-1 in the Senate).
February 28, 2000 Former state senator Barry Keene files a petition with the California Supreme Court asking that only the results of the blanket primary be tallied, and that no separate tally be done for party-only votes.  (Keene questioned whether the Legislature had the authority to amend an initiative).
March 7, 2000 Primary conducted under blanket primary rules.  Secretary of State reports separate tally for party-only votes the presidential primary.
April 24, 2000 U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in California Democratic Party, California Republican Party, Libertarian Party of California and Peace and Freedom Party v. Bill Jones, Secretary of State of California, and Californians for an Open Primary, et al.
June 26, 2000 U.S. Supreme Court rules California's blanket primary violates political parties' First Amendment rights of free association.  >>

Copyright 2000  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.