In visit to Poly, Secretary of State Alex Padilla calls for earlier 2020 presidential primary

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said Wednesday he wants to increase the state’s influence in the 2020 presidential election by moving its primary from June to March, forcing candidates to spend time campaigning in California rather than just visiting for high-dollar fundraisers.

“I think California should be third (behind Iowa and New Hampshire). We’re the most populous state in the union, we’re the most diverse state in the union,” Padilla told a room of Cal Poly students during a visit to the campus.

Padilla threw his support behind Senate Bill 568, introduced Feb. 17 by state Sen. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, a bill that would move California’s presidential primary to the third Tuesday in March — or sooner, at the governor’s discretion.

As secretary of state, Padilla is responsible for overseeing both state and federal elections in California.

He said California’s primary came early in the 2008 presidential election, which saw record voter turnout. That year, California moved its presidential primary to Feb. 5, called Super Tuesday because of the large number of primary elections and caucuses that took place nationwide.

The significance of holding an earlier primary in 2008 was unclear. While Californians voted for John McCain, who would go on to clinch the Republican nomination, they also voted for Hillary Clinton, who would lose the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama.

Padilla’s visit to Cal Poly, along with Majority Leader Sen. Bill Monning, who represents the Central Coast, came in recognition of Cal Poly students’ efforts in a national collegiate voter registration drive in 2016. Out of 176 schools participating in the program, Cal Poly placed fourth.

Doug Epperson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said 20 percent of the student body at Cal Poly is registered to vote in San Luis Obispo County.

Monning offered his praise, but he said that also means 80 percent of the student body is not registered to vote in the county, with some remaining registered in their hometowns.

“I always think it’s important to register in the area you live in,” Monning said.

Padilla and Monning, both Democrats, urged the students not to sit out the 2018 midterm elections. Though the 2020 presidential election is expected to see high turnout, Padilla used Wednesday’s visit to call attention to the slate of statewide executive offices, including his own, up for election in 2018.

“Anyone here care about student loans or funding for public universities?” Padilla asked the students. The state Legislature and the governor’s office, up for election in 2018, sets the funding for the California State University system.

Monning told students that whoever succeeds Gov. Jerry Brown will play a key role in challenging President Donald Trump on environmental and immigration policy.

“I think the future of California is at stake,” he said.

The subject of civil rights, particularly voting rights, was at the center of Padilla’s visit Wednesday, which included a question-and-answer session moderated by Monning.

Padilla said civil rights issues led him to seek elected office, after California voters approved Proposition 187, which prohibited undocumented immigrants and their children from using public services.

“I am the proud son of immigrants,” said Padilla, whose parents emigrated from Mexico and raised their family in Los Angeles. “I had no choice but to get involved. ... I jumped in with both feet.”

Today, the secretary said, there is a sustained attack on minority communities, as well as other demographics underrepresented at the polls, that while echoing the voter discrimination of the Jim Crow era has an identity all its own.

“It’s no longer poll taxes and literacy tests,” Padilla said. “It’s things like purging the voter rolls. It’s things like voter ID.”

The secretary, who endorsed Clinton in the latest presidential election, criticized what he described as voter suppression efforts in Alabama and Wisconsin in the run-up to the 2016 general election. Both states passed toughened voter ID laws in recent years.

“The margin of victory in Wisconsin was about 28,000 (votes),” Padilla said. “Coincidence? You’re smart people.”

Since being elected as secretary of state in 2014, Padilla has overseen an effort to expand the number of registered voters in California. In 2015, that included shepherding a bill through the Legislature that, beginning in 2016, automatically registered to vote anyone obtaining or renewing a driver’s license.

“We’re now in full implementation mode,” Padilla said.

He said he also championed a bill that has expanded California’s vote-by-mail capabilities.

Now in his third year in office, Padilla laid out some goals for the second half of his four-year term.

“We’re working on things like funding for new election systems,” he said. “Most of the systems we voted on are at least 15 years old.”

Padilla asked the students to think about what phones were like 15 years ago, eliciting laughter from the room.

Emily White, a first-year marine sciences student from Camarillo, said she attended Wednesday’s presentation at the suggestion of her political science teacher.

“I definitely learned more (about voter registration) than what I knew,” she said.

White said she is registered to vote in Ventura County. Asked whether the presentation had persuaded her to update her registration, she said: “I’m not really sure.”

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7929, @andrewsheeler