California lawmakers vote for earlier primary elections

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California may hold its presidential primary elections in March after lawmakers in both chambers of the Legislature passed bills Thursday to increase the influence of the nation's largest and most diverse state.

The state Senate passed a bill to move California's primary from June to the third Tuesday in March. The state Assembly voted to move the primary to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March.

One of the bills must pass both houses and be signed by the governor for the date to change.

Supporters of the bills say the state's June primary gives California voters less of a say in who becomes president because it occurs so late on the calendar. The state's 2016 primary occurred after Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had already become the presumptive nominees for Republican and Democratic parties.

An earlier primary would give Californians greater influence in the presidential nomination decisions, said Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, who authored the Assembly bill.

"California has largely been a non-factor when it comes to selecting candidates," the San Francisco-area Democrat said. "AB84 will enable more Californians to be politically relevant in presidential election cycles."

The bills would move both state and presidential primaries up during presidential election years. The legislation approved in the Senate would give the governor the option to make the primary even earlier if other states jump in front.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, who authored the Senate bill, says the state's current primary comes too late and that holding it earlier would make candidates more likely to address issues important to Californians.

"We are dead last when it comes to our presidential primary calendar," the Democrat from Bell Gardens said. "It's time that Californians have a better voice in who is leading our country."

California's primary hasn't mattered since 1980, Lara said.

"With this bill, candidates from all parties will have to spend more time in California," Lara said. "The current primary election system stifles California's influence in the most critical election years."

Assemblyman Matthew Harper said he opposes holding an earlier primary.

"Earlier is not necessarily more influential," the Huntington Beach Republican said, adding that the state's relatively late primary could allow Californians to cast the final deciding votes of the nominating contests.

The Assembly bill passed 52-20. The Senate bill, SB568, passed 32-6.