The Primary Problem

In the absence of the blanket primary, experts predict mass confusion and voter anger with September's election.

On Sept. 14, 2004, 67 years of voting will be overturned in Washington state. The blanket primary is dead—murdered by the state's political parties' successful lawsuit. In its place is a new voting system, and in King County the ballot will command voters to "indicate the political party with which you choose to affiliate." This September you must decide which slate of candidates you wish to vote for—Democratic, Republican, or Libertarian—and then you can only vote for that party's candidates. No more crossover voting in the primary. (In November's general election, of course, voters will be able to vote for whichever candidate they prefer, regardless of party affiliation.)

Since most Washingtonians are independents and do not choose to affiliate with any political party, many political insiders and academics are full of doom and gloom. "We are going to make the people in Florida look smart," says Republican consultant David Mortenson. Says University of Washington political science professor David Olson: "We are coming into a primary that has the makings of a disaster."

Dean Logan, the director of King County Elections, acknowledges this primary election will be very different for Washington's voters. "It is a huge change," he says, "but I'm optimistic." Logan has used focus groups and sent sample ballots to voters around the county to determine what kind of format to use in order to make the process as simple as it can be. He has decided to use a consolidated ballot that will have the candidates from all three parties on the same piece of paper along with the nonpartisan races (judges and ballot measures), which anyone can vote for, regardless of party preference.

Secretary of State Sam Reed had hoped that counties would use four separate ballots for Republican, Libertarian, Democratic, and nonpartisan slates. "My concern is if somebody receives a ballot page with all the candidates on it, they are going to go back and forth picking and choosing between parties like they've always done," he says. Separate ballots, he argues, would be less confusing for voters. "Pick one ballot, vote one ballot; that's pretty simple."

Logan says he decided against separate ballots for several reasons. First, since more than 70 percent of King County voters cast their ballots by mail last year, the county would have to mail out four times the number of ballots as it normally does—over 500,000 ballots, Logan estimates. That would be difficult, if not impossible, for King County's print shop to carry out in the short period between the end of filing week, July 30, and Aug. 25, when the absentee ballots begin to be mailed out to voters, Logan claims. Moreover, in the past few years, King County has had a number of problems with its absentee ballots, and Logan is anxious to have the process go as smoothly as possible. In addition, Logan believes, the existence of many ballots that would have to be discarded would create a public relations problem for King County, where anxiety over election security already runs pretty high. Logan is pleased with the results of the focus groups and sample ballot survey conducted for the county by the Connections Group, a local political and public affairs consulting firm. The county mailed 1,600 randomly selected voters sample ballots. Four hundred received separate ballots, 400 received ballots consolidated by political party (Democratic, Republican, Libertarian), 400 received ballots consolidated by position (U.S. Senate, governor, attorney general, etc.), and 400 received all of the above.

As Secretary of State Reed predicted, voters found it easier to follow the rules when using separate ballots—94 percent of these ballots were returned correctly completed. The percentage of correctly completed consolidated ballots, either by party or position, was lower at around 88 percent. (The county opted for ballots consolidated by party, since focus groups found them easier to understand.)

Logan hopes that through public education between now and the election, the rate of "spoiled" ballots will be under 10 percent. He explains that it is pretty hard to completely spoil your ballot. If you fail to choose a party preference or you choose more than one, your votes for partisan races will not be counted but your votes for judges and ballot measures will still count. If you choose a party preference, say Democrat, but then vote for some candidates from a different party, say Republican, those votes will be thrown out but your votes for Democratic and nonpartisan candidates will still be counted.

In the 2000 primary election, around 380,000 voters in King County cast ballots. Logan estimates that about 2 percent were spoiled. This year, there are going to be thousands more. "We are going to have a lot of spoilage," predicts UW professor of communications John Gastil. "The reason people go to college is so they can have the arrogance not to read instructions." His colleague in political science, Olson, predicts "mass confusion." In addition, Olson argues, there will be angry voters who will refuse to follow the rules on principle— because they don't feel they should be compelled to vote one party's slate.

"The first reaction is anger," says Logan of King County Elections. "People said, 'This is unconstitutional.'" (Ironically the blanket primary was thrown out because the courts ruled that it was an unconstitutional violation of the political parties' First Amendment rights to freedom of association.)

This anger was reflected in the surveys and focus groups that King County conducted—although the numbers were small. Around 4 percent of voters who responded to the survey included angry notes, and most of them failed to fill out their ballots correctly.

One thing that everyone agrees on: The new primary will result in fewer numbers of people bothering to vote at all. "Turnout is going to decline precipitously," predicts Olson. He cites the example of California.

The Golden State's history with the blanket primary is different from ours, but the numbers are still worth noting. While Washington used the blanket primary that allows voters to choose their preferred candidate regardless of party for 67 years, California only used it for two elections before it was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1998, according to the secretary of state's office, 42.9 percent of California's registered voters turned out for the state's first blanket primary, with a ballot featuring a gubernatorial matchup. Four years later, the partisan primary was in place, and turnout fell to 34.6 percent.

"What are you going to end up with?" asks Olson rhetorically. "True party believers." He notes that California's 2002 partisan primary resulted in victory by the very conservative Republican Bill Simon over the more moderate former mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan. "Simon appealed to the right wing of the Republican Party," says Olson.

In Washington's governor's race, King County Executive Ron Sims is clearly counting on more ideologically polarized voters going to the polls. Sims is promising to bring an income tax to Washington if elected—an obvious appeal to the left wing of the Democratic Party. "Right now I am betting on Ron Sims," says Republican strategist Mortenson. "He is running your classic, low-turnout, base campaign. Christine Gregoire is running to the center."

There's some wishful thinking in Mortenson's argument. There is nothing the Republicans would like more than to run against a Democratic candidate touting an income tax in November's general election. The GOP believes, probably correctly, that would spell victory for their gubernatorial candidate, former state Sen. Dino Rossi.

That's why Democratic primary voters won't back Sims, says Christian Sinderman, a Democratic political consultant working with state Attorney General Gregoire, among other candidates. "The majority of Democrats in this state are thoughtful. They want to win in November."

Sinderman's contention that Democratic voters will cast their September ballots with an eye toward November is consistent with their behavior in this year's Democratic presidential caucuses. Early on, all the momentum seemed to be moving toward former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who had an antiwar message that appealed to the party's liberal activists. Caucus-goers, however, overwhelmingly supported the more centrist message of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, evidently believing he matched up better against President Bush in November.

While the debate rages about how few voters will or can follow the new primary's directions and which candidates will benefit, most observers agree on one thing: This might well be the only time we will vote in this sort of partisan primary.

In November, the state's voters will have a chance to decide on Initiative 872, sponsored by the Washington State Grange, which would change the primary once again. Under I-872, voters would be able to choose candidates regardless of party in future primary elections, but only the top two candidates in each race would advance to the general election. This could result in general-election contests between members of the same party. For instance, if I-872 had been in effect this year, November's general election for governor might have turned out to be a matchup between Democrats Gregoire and Sims.

Regardless of the fact that I-872 will not restore the blanket primary, most observers believe it will pass overwhelmingly. "I cannot see a better advertisement in the world for the Grange initiative than the 2004 primary ballot," says Republican consultant Jim Keough of Claddagh Associates. Democratic consultant Sinderman agrees, "That thing is going to pass at 80 percent."

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