Primary problem

A Supreme Court decision will likely change how Washingtonians vote.

FOR 65 YEARS, Washington state residents have enjoyed the right to vote for any candidate on the primary ballot, without stating a political party affiliation. The ride seems to be over, due to a recent ruling by the US Supreme Court.

On June 26, the high court struck down California's political primary law, which was specifically modeled on Washington state's so-called blanket primary. Although the ruling doesn't technically affect Washington, political leaders acknowledge our system is a lawsuit away from disappearing. The state's Democratic Party now appears willing to file that lawsuit and is demanding that Democratic voters in this September's primary election receive a ballot listing only their party's candidates. A final primary election system would then be adopted next year by the legislature.

Even if they don't agree with the court's decision, there are five guys who should benefit from it in the short term—the candidates vying to replace retiring Secretary of State Ralph Munro. The race for state election czar usually ranks fairly low in terms of voter interest, admits state Representative Mike Wensman (R-Mercer Island), who is battling five-term Thurston County Auditor Sam Reed for the Republican nomination. "The first question you get from most people when you say you're running for secretary of state is 'Why should I care?'" he jokes.

Of course, the first box on the checklist for secretary of state candidates is to fulminate against the Supreme Court decision itself. "Maybe it's good for the [political] parties, but it's a power play," says Allen Norman, a Seattle businessman. Norman, who will challenge former state party chair Charles Rolland and Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger for the Democratic nomination, says his candidacy is based on increasing public participation in the political process, and he fears the Supreme Court decision will lead to lower primary turnout.

The thrust of the Supreme Court's 7-2 decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, is that blanket primaries allow voters who don't consider themselves party members to choose a political party's nominee—a situation Scalia feels violates the First Amendment's right to freedom of association. The dissent, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, notes that primary elections are a function of the state, not political parties, and should remain under government control.

ALL FIVE CANDIDATES say the key to creating a new primary system is making sure independent Washington voters are given a means of voting in primary elections. It's a huge issue, says Rolland, who notes that polls have shown that about one-third of the state's voters consider themselves political independents. "My goal would be that we don't disenfranchise any citizens of the state of Washington," he says. While some voters would probably adopt party affiliations under a partisan system, notes Terwilliger, "the real concern is what happens to that voter who refuses to designate in any way, shape, or form what party they belong to."

Although election laws differ widely from state to state, most primaries fit into one of two categories. The first is the open primary, in which voters merely show up at the polls and ask for a Republican or Democratic ballot (or the ballot of any third party currently qualifying for ballot status). In a closed primary, voters register their party affiliation before the election. In some closed primary states, declared independent voters are allowed to participate in the party primary of their choice.

The only other system still standing after the Supreme Court ruling is Louisiana's nonpartisan primary, in which all candidates appear on a single ballot and the top two vote-getters advance to the final election. Although all five candidates say they'd consider a nonpartisan primary, it's unlikely Washington's Legislature would emulate the Louisiana model, due to its unpopularity with leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Only two of the candidates contacted were willing to take the plunge and make their own proposal—not surprisingly, the two who have run elections as county auditors. Reed says a closed primary system is probably the best for Washington state. The state needs to know which ballot to send absentee voters, which make up a growing proportion of the state electorate. Reed would favor sending declared independents an alternate ballot that includes all candidates, in effect, continuing the blanket primary for unaffiliated voters. Terwilliger opts for an open primary, with absentee independent voters receiving copies of all parties' primary ballots to choose from.

Wensman wants to broaden the debate by holding public meetings in various Washington cities. "Let the public come in and discuss what the options are," he urges.

For the most part, the public seems stunned that its electoral choices will be curtailed. Norman knows just how people feel. "I'm a Democrat through and through," he says, "but what about my Republican friends who want to vote for me?"

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