October 09, 2004

I-872 and the Washington Primary

Washington’s blanket primary is dead, and it’s never coming back. It allowed primary election voters to pick from a list of every party’s candidates for each race. Someone voting in the blanket primary could pick a Republican for State Treasurer, Democrat for Attorney General, and a Libertarian for Secretary of State on the same primary ballot. The top vote getter for each party was then sent on to the general election ballot. After a U.S. Supreme Court ruling found California’s similar blanket primary unconstitutional, Washington’s Democratic, Libertarian, and Republican parties joined in a suit to overturn the Washington blanket primary.

According to Grange member and Initiative I-872 volunteer Don Whiting, the court said that a primary system could either nominate candidates by party, or allow voters to vote across party lines, but not both at once. The Grange, a fraternal organization for farmers and rural residents, helped create the original blanket primary in 1934. Whiting said the goal is to allow voters to pick candidates instead of parties, and they were willing to give up having a nominating primary in order to keep that. They prepared Initiative I-872, on the ballot this November, as a fallback in case the legislature enacted a primary system that forbid voting across party lines.

The parties cited their right to freely associate and pick their own candidates, preferring a nominating primary. This was the top concern of the Libertarian party, with State Chair Larry McLaren explaining that it had become so easy for people to run as Libertarians, they couldn’t ensure that candidates running as Libertarians represented the party. Republican Party Communications Director Suzanne Tomlin said that under the old system, “you can kind of dip into the other’s primary” to pick a weaker candidate to run against. McLaren said one of many examples was the 1996 governor’s race where evidence suggests crossover voters helped Ellen Craswell win the Republican nomination. Liberal Stranger columnist Dan Savage urged his readers to vote for Craswell in that primary, saying she was too extreme to win a general election. Savage may have been right, as Democratic candidate Gary Locke won nearly 60% of the vote.

This year, the legislature passed a bill to replace the blanket primary. The one they picked was the least confusing piece of legislation proposed, which turned out to be a low bar indeed.

The main provision of the bill they passed created a Top Two, or Louisiana style primary, where the top two vote-getters in the primary election would pass on to the general election regardless of party. Secondary provisions in the bill allowed a selective veto by the governor to create the Modified Montana ballot system used this year. The Montana requires voters to choose a party on their ballot, and vote only for candidates from that party in the partisan races. One candidate from each party reaching a threshold level of participation gets sent on to the general election. Everyone can still vote in nonpartisan races, and the voter doesn’t have to register their party affiliation.

Major political parties prefer registration by party, which is common across most of the country and allows them to better reach supporters. However, the legislature didn’t seriously consider that option. The choice of a Democratic, Libertarian, or Republican ballot in the Modified Montana primary is secret, and doesn’t affect which party the voter can pick in the next primary.

Initiative I-872 would enact a version of the vetoed Top Two primary system to replace the Modified Montana. Whiting said that a Top Two system would keep the main feature of the blanket primary, allowing anyone to vote for any candidate regardless of party. The state parties say this will restrict choice by reducing the diversity of candidates available to vote for in the general election, and could result in a choice between two candidates from the same party. Whiting disagrees that this is a problem, saying it would be unlikely to happen in more than 3% of races.

Whiting said parties don’t want two of their candidates facing each other because it “uses up too much funding” they would rather put towards other races. He says in safe districts, where the Republican or Democratic primary nominee wins automatically, the choice is already made in the primary. In those cases, he says it would increase the chance that the minority voting group could vote for someone with a chance to win who more closely represented them.

The state Democratic and Republican parties both added similar bylaws three years ago that allow them to hold a series of nominating conventions and caucuses to pick which candidate can run in their party’s name, and say that they will use them to bypass the primary if I-872 wins. McLaren pointed out that only around half of all voters participate in the primary system today. Historical participation in nominating conventions has been well below that.

Posted by natasha at October 9, 2004 10:28 AM | WA Politics | Technorati links |

At this point I'd rather they just dump the primary election entirely than make all taxpayers bear the burden of electing party members to run in the general election.

And I still think the state should sue the parties to make up the difference in cost of this last primary from a normal primary. Bankrupt the stupid parties, and maybe they won't screw with an election system that worked and was loved by the citizens of the state for 70 years.

I don't understand how any state can force people to register for a party in order to vote. It seems completely unAmerican to me.

Posted by: Laura Gjovaag at October 9, 2004 06:49 PM

If you dump the primary, you probably end up with something like what Louisiana has, where they too regularly end up with so many major party candidates on the general election ballot that they have to have runoff elections a month later. And I don't think we want that, very embarassing really.

A normal primary is what they have in other states, not the one we used to have which has been found unconstitutional. It really isn't coming back.

But you don't have to worry about party registration here. I think the state legislature would rather walk through a minefield than force Washington voters to register by party, but it's very common elsewhere.

For instance, in New Hampshire you can't even get a ballot for a party you aren't registered for unless you're an independent. And unless you sign a form to change back to independent, taking a partisan ballot registers you as a member of that party for the next election. It's very complicated, and I saw not a few people who thought they were registered independent discover that they were only allowed to vote on the ballot of the party they last voted for and couldn't switch at the poll.

None of it seems like a big deal if you're used to it. In my home state of California, no one seemed to care that they had to register by party, though I don't know how they reacted to getting the blanket primary struck down.

The benefit of having a closed primary, though, is that there's a ballot system that could be implemented for the presidential primary. Only states where you have to pick a party in the primary can hold a balloted presidential primary, otherwise only the results of a caucus are recognized by the national parties. Think how many more people would vote in the presidential primary if they could vote absentee like they're used to doing for all the other elections?

Posted by: natasha at October 9, 2004 11:56 PM

I hope I never get used to the idea of being forced into a party. It seems both immoral to require a party affiliation - and to put people into a party by what ballot they request - and absolutely contrary to the concept of a secret ballot. Just because people are used to it doesn't mean it's right.

But my biggest complaint with this last primary is that it cost twice the old primary, and that money went to directly benefitting the political parties and assisting them in making choices that they should have made by themselves. If the parties are so concerned about only having party members vote in their elections, then the parties should hold their own elections. Why are all the citizens of the state being forced to pay for their little private elections? Screw 'em. They should pay the state back for wasting our money.

Elections are for the people of the state, not the parties. Parties should never take priority over people. If the parties don't want to recognize the will of the people because the people refuse to be bullied into choosing a party, then the parties can just ignore us. Their loss. Parties have too much power in American politics as it is.

Posted by: Laura Gjovaag at October 10, 2004 11:34 AM

it is hilarious to listen to washingtonians whine and cry and moan about this issue.

sure it makes you feel great, but it's illegal. deal with it. it's called the constitution.

personally we could all go back to party conventions nominating candidates. beats having to spend money on a eleciton most yahoos can't be bothere to vote in anyway.

and hey! it would also be um, consitutional!


Posted by: oskar at October 10, 2004 03:32 PM

Man this whole discussion is completely weird to me. I have lived in 6 other states before moving to Washington and in ever single one of them you declare a party when you register to vote. This is the norm in the 50 states. To talk of being forced into a party seems quite over the top. It's not like you have to give the money and go to their meetings or vote for whom they tell you. All it does is determine which ballot you get in the primary. And I much prefer to have Democrats choosing Democratic tickets, thank you very much. Really guys, this is how all the other states do it and I can't see that it's caused the downfall of the Republic yet.


Posted by: Mary Kay at October 10, 2004 11:24 PM

Mary Kay - I have a hard time understanding it, myself. Obviously people have strong feelings about it, but I don't really share those emotions.

Laura - "But my biggest complaint with this last primary is that it cost twice the old primary, and that money went to directly benefitting the political parties and assisting them in making choices that they should have made by themselves."

I don't see why you think the political parties should make these choices without public assistance. The point of paying for a primary is that the largest number of people gets to be involved in choosing who ends up on the general election ballot. I like the general idea of having primaries, and I didn't mind the blanket so especially, but it's unconstitutional.

The parties are entities sanctioned by laws requiring hefty numbers of people to support them. They exist because large groups of voters that probably never even met someone who works officially with a political party identify with them. Those voters should not be denied participation in choosing who represents them to the rest of the electorate.

How does it improve anything to have the parties opt out of the primary system to run nominating conventions in which a vanishingly small group of highly partisan people will make the decisions about who runs? If left to hardcore partisans, Ron Sims would probably be the Democratic candidate for governor. I really like Sims, but had reservations about his appeal to independent voters, and the ease with which his positions could be caricatured by Republicans. Alternately, the Republicans might have run a parrot like Tebelius for the 8th Congressional. Instead they picked someone who, while sounding more parrot-like by the day, has a chance of winning.

Broad participation saves parties from themselves, and saves voters from having to vote on a choice between the 'ideal' candidates of their respective party machinery. It'd be Kucinich vs. DeLay all over the place, and I guarantee you the voters would get fed up.

And regarding participation, I went to the presidential precinct and legislative caucuses. For all that turnout was high it was a tiny fraction of the registered voters in the area. I'll bet most people in this state didn't even know there was a caucus going on. And the people who showed up voted on the platform and decided which presidential candidate the state should support. Were they really representative? No one can possibly know, but I happen to think it's impossible to have had a representative result when sampling from a group of people who had two or more hours to spend on a Saturday afternoon mucking around in a school gym with their neighbors.

More than that, you cite concerns of privacy in arguing for what sounds to me like throwing the whole process back to the parties. When you go to those caucuses, you have to sign in, leave your personal contact information, and note which candidate you support. These records become the property of the party. How is that possibly an improvement from a privacy perspective over a system where there isn't even a record attached to your name regarding which party's ballot you filled out?

Posted by: natasha at October 11, 2004 09:25 PM

I don't get you guys. You have to tell the state what your opinion is before you are allowed to vote? How is that private? How is that fair? How is that democratic?

I don't get you, oskar... you apparently think that I "whine and cry and moan" about being allowed to vote for who I want to? Isn't that the very foundation of democracy, being allowed to vote for who you support, not for who some party tells you to vote for? If I shouldn't "whine and cry and moan" about my rights as a voter being taken away, what on earth IS worthy of being whined about?

At least it's only the primary election. Should the general election ever force me to vote down party lines, then you'll hear some REAL whining.

I don't believe in political parties. I think the power should go to individual voters. That's apparently a radical thought, but it seems like common sense to me. I will never join a party, although I have often supported one or the other in the past. If I am told that I cannot vote unless I declare a party, or forced to take a ballot for a party just because I voted for that party in the last election, I will consider it a violation of my rights as a voter. In my opinion, the state should NEVER have any record of what ballot a person has choosen. The situation natasha described in New Hampshire seems to my like a horrible case of facism. The state forcing you to vote a particular way? It seems blatantly illegal... blatantly unAmerican.

"This is the norm in the 50 states." Um, no. It's not the norm in Washington state. 49 maybe, but not 50.

Are we just spoiled in Washington? Perhaps we just are lucky enough to actually have had real democracy here, unlike the rest of the nation? If so, why aren't the rest of you whining your heads off to be allowed the freedom to vote also?

Posted by: Laura Gjovaag at October 12, 2004 05:08 PM

Here's a really good reason why you should never be required to state a party in order to vote: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2004/10/12/213358/59

This dirty trick could not have been pulled in Washington State.

Posted by: Laura Gjovaag at October 12, 2004 06:55 PM