Primary Chaos in Washington

Posted February 23, 2004 at 6:47pm

The enemy of my enemy is my friend — perhaps that saying has never been truer in politics than it is right now in Washington state.

Republican and Democratic operatives successfully joined forces to shoot down the state’s long-running blanket primary in federal court — their victory solidified by Monday’s Supreme Court decision not to hear the case.

“Occasionally, an issue arises that affects citizens in such a profound way that parties from opposing sides unite in support of a plan for the greatest common good,” Washington’s Republican and Democratic party chairmen jointly wrote in an op-ed article they are shopping around to state newspapers. “Washington state is faced with such an issue as we replace the blanket primary.”

But what will replace that system, and the coalition that must be cobbled together to find an alternate plan in three short weeks, is likely to create some strange bedfellows and pit party members against party leaders.

Meanwhile, candidates do not know if they should be courting would-be primary voters or the hundreds of grassroots, party faithful in the event that the parties establish nominating conventions or caucuses.

The state Legislature is set to adjourn March 11 but before it does, lawmakers have been assigned the task of creating a new primary system.

If that wasn’t pressure enough, the two major party leaders have told legislators that if they fail to adopt a plan acceptable to them, the parties will forgo a primary and hold nominating conventions or caucuses instead.

“In 2001, the Republican State Committee unanimously adopted rules providing for the nomination of candidates by convention if the state does not hold a partisan primary resulting in the nomination of a single Republican candidate for each office,” Chairman Chris Vance wrote to all GOP candidates last week. “With precinct caucuses now scheduled for March 9, candidates and party officials need time to prepare for possible conventions now.”

Democrats have vowed to follow suit, spokeswoman Kirstin Brost said.

That threat creates an interesting dynamic, as three proposals are being discussed in Olympia — one party leaders favor, one they could live with and one they detest.

The one they advocate in their op-ed is modeled on Arizona’s system.

“Both parties also welcome the participation of true independents in their primaries, whether or not these independents want to join the party,” Vance and Paul Berendt, Democratic chairman, wrote.

They said they support an Arizona model in which “people who belong to a political party must vote in their own primaries but people who belong to no political party can vote in the party primary of their choice without affiliating with the party.”

The one they could live with is styled after Montana’s system. It requires voters to pick one party’s slate from which to choose each primary day but keeps no record of their choice and does not require voters to register with any party.

The final one, known as the “Cajun” system, is the closest thing to Washington’s now-unconstitutional blanket primary under discussion.

It’s really a qualifying election that allows crossover voting and does not force voters to register. The top two voter-getters, regardless of party affiliation, then move on to the general election.

This is the system party leaders hate and say, if enacted, will drive them to hold their own caucuses.

“There’s a threshold decision here,” Vance said. “Do [legislators and state officials] want to sit down and work with the party or do they want to continue to shove a system down our throats that we hate?”

The fight started in 2000 after California’s blanket primary system was ruled unconstitutional. The Washington parties saw an opportunity to replace the system, which they felt hurt them. Under the old system, candidates for office ran in a single primary, with the top Republican and top Democrat advancing to the general election.

The courts ruled in the parties’ favor, saying the blanket primary violated political parties’ First Amendment rights to affiliate with whom they wanted and choose their own nominees.

The state, led by GOP Secretary of State Sam Reed, fought on behalf of voters to maintain the system they knew and liked.

Since then, Reed has championed the “top two” or Cajun system, saying it’s what the voters want.

He has found an ally in state Sen. Pam Roach, who heads the Senate elections committee.

Seeing her own party chairman dig in his heels against such a plan, Roach has also proposed adopting the Montana system for this year only, then adding a referendum to the ballot giving voters two choices — a top two plan and some sort of modified open primary — allowing them to decide how to vote in subsequent primaries.

The Grange, the agriculture association that created the blanket primary during the Great Depression, supports the Cajun system.

It appears Cajun supporters are winning the public relations war.

The Seattle Times opined that legislators should “side with the citizens, not the parties” and adopt Roach’s qualifying primary system.

“Public polls show most citizens don’t want a change, but if they must, they support a primary that is as close as possible to how they’ve been voting for the past 69 years,” the paper wrote.

Vance said his side is not getting a fair shake.

“They’re not telling people the truth,” Vance said. The Cajun system is not like the blanket primary, he said. And its backers have not told voters that if the state adopts such a plan, voters will be removed from the equation as the parties will turn to caucuses in which the party faithful, precinct committeemen, will pick the nominees.

Vance worries that the state could end up in a real pickle if the state Legislature insists on the Cajun system.

The primary could produce one nominee and the caucuses could produce another and somebody, no doubt, would sue.

The voters would not know who the “real” nominee is, Vance said.

The Republican National Committee’s rules account for such a situation and state that, in the case there are two nominees, the one chosen by the party will be viewed as the nominee for federal elections, Vance said.

Vance also warned that if the parties turn to caucuses, he cannot control the outcome.

“One of our incumbents is going to lose,” he predicted, saying it is the party’s policy to support incumbents but that anything could be possible in a caucus.

One thing that all parties concerned agree on is that confusion reigns in Olympia now.

“There doesn’t seem to be a consensus,” said state Sen. and 5th district Congressional candidate Larry Sheahan (R).

There is no rhyme or reason to how legislators are coming down on the issue, insiders say. Democrats and Republicans, House members and Senators are not all on the same page.

The uncertainty is what makes things difficult for federal candidates, Sheahan said.

“You have to be prepared for any scenario,” he said.