Primary dolors

A third try to solve the state's election-reform dilemma fizzles.

WASHINGTON STATE has slipped one big step closer to having its electoral laws rewritten by a federal judge. Nobody, including the judge (Franklin D. Burgess of the U.S. District Court in Tacoma) wants to see this happen, but so far no one's figured out how to keep it from happening: Certainly the members of the Washington Legislature haven't, though they're the people who'll be most severely impacted if it does happen.

Last June, encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court's overturn of California's "blanket primary" election law, the leaders of the Washington Democratic and Republican state party organizations challenged our own very similar law on the grounds that it deprives the parties of their constitutional right to choose their own candidates for office.

They have a point: If any primary voter, regardless of political affiliation, is entitled to help choose who's going to represent a party in the general election, that party is deprived of its constitutional right as a voluntary association to govern its own affairs. Pretty much everyone now agrees that Washington's blanket primary, which allows just such voting, is a dead letter. Trouble is, voters like the present system and loathe the idea of being forced to record themselves as members of a party in order to vote in primaries. Most individual elected officials, as opposed to the party bosses, like it, too, and hate the prospect of having to seek the permission of some unelected state leader in order merely to run for office.

So far this session three bills addressing the primary challenge have bitten the dust. The first, a sort of blanket primary lite, made it out of committee in the House only to be bottled up in Rules, but it's questionable whether it would have passed constitutional muster anyway. A Senate bill, designed more to force the state parties to withdraw their lawsuit than to fix the problem, died in committee.

The third, which expired March 8 in the Senate's Ways and Means Committee, was by far the most interesting, because it was intended neither as a Band-Aid nor a poison pill but as a genuinely new way of clarifying and expediting the electoral process. Senate Bill 5338 would have authorized and instituted an "instant runoff" voting system. IRV, as it's called, would eliminate primary elections entirely, while saving the state millions of dollars, encouraging political participation, countering voter alienation, and rendering the parties' constitutional objections moot (and the parties themselves irrelevant in the process).

IRV SOUNDS SO GOOD in theory that you can't imagine why it wasn't adopted years ago, until you try to explain the theory to someone else. The basic idea is simple enough: Instead of opting for just one candidate in the general election, each voter numerically ranks the candidates. When votes are counted, the candidate who received the fewest "first choice" votes is eliminated and the ballots in their bin are redistributed to the voter's second choice for the office. The process repeats until someone has a clear majority.

The great advantage of the system is that, ultimately, someone always ends up with a clear majority, however slim. The disadvantage is that it is extremely difficult to follow the process in detail: Proponents of IRV have adopted the slogan "It's as easy as One, Two, Three!" And so it is, if you happen to be a pocket calculator. But trying to work out the possible permutations of an election with more than three candidates can try the patience of anyone equipped with only a pencil and paper.

IRV is popular with grassroots democracy fans like musician-activist Krist Novoselic, who lobbied heavily for IRV in the Senate. IRV ensures that no one's vote is "wasted" on a third- or fourth-party candidate; should your first-choice Green or Libertarian or Socialist fail to make one of the top slots on the first round, you have the satisfaction of seeing your vote go to the next-least-objectionable name on the ballot rather than being discarded entirely.

IRV is, naturally, less popular with major-party incumbents, but should be anathema to major-party bosses. The last thing they (and the forces that finance them) want is to see consumer choice enhanced at the ballot box. That at least was the calculation of Seattle Democrat Adam Kline, who cosponsored an IRV measure with east King County Republican Bill Finkbeiner. "I think IRV has potential to at least stem the erosion of voter turnout we've been experiencing for years in this state," Kline said last week. "But when we put together the bill and voted it unanimously out of [the State and Local Government] committee, we frankly wanted a kind of 'poison pill' to force the state parties to terminate their lawsuit."

What worked in State and Local Government didn't play in Ways and Means: Only nine of 21 members voted in favor of it.

No further bills to stave off a court-ordered revamping of the election laws remain in play. We all remember how happy we were when the courts intervened in the presidential electoral process. But with the fight to cover a billion-and-a-half-dollar state budget shortfall barely engaged, what chance is there that legislators are going to find time to take command of the subject themselves?

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