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Rules of Engagement

Candidates Adjust to New Primary System

Candidates for Washington state’s two open House seats are happy Gov. Gary Locke (D) settled the question of what kind of primary the state will hold — but their relief could be short-lived.

At least two groups are trying to collect enough signatures for initiatives or referenda to effectively nullify Locke’s veto that created a system based on Montana’s primary — in which voters must choose one party’s ballot on primary day.

The Grange, an agricultural group that created Washington’s now-illegal blanket primary, which enabled voters to pick candidates from more than one party for different offices, filed a suit last week contending that Locke’s veto was improper.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court refused to revisit a lower court’s ruling that the blanket primary negated a party’s ability to select its own nominee — thereby violating its First Amendment rights.

As a result, the state Legislature had to come up with a new system in time for the Sept. 14 primary.

Locke had the final say, and the Montana system is slated to be used in the upcoming election — until further notice.

“Everything is not 100 percent resolved,” said Suzanne Tomlin, spokeswoman for the Washington Republican Party.

Nonetheless, the candidates and their parties think the chances of the Grange’s lawsuit or any other group’s appeal to change the system before the primary are not good and are preparing accordingly.

Candidates who were unsure before are kicking off their campaigns and ready to compete in the Montana-style primary, Tomlin said.

“The campaigns are moving forward as if it’s a regular campaign,” she said. “Many were holding off before.”

“We have some certainty at least [now],” said Dan Brady, spokesman for former U.S. Attorney Diane Tebelius, who is seeking the GOP nomination in the state’s open 8th district race.

All the candidates assume the Montana system will remain and are campaigning that way, he said.

It was difficult because candidates had to do all the usual things — raise money, find their base — for a campaign, plus “every day we had to watch this thing,” Brady said.

Kent Patton, spokesman for King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who is also seeking the GOP nomination in the 8th district, said he is happy to have the matter resolved but he blames the Legislature for adding to the confusion.

“We are absolutely happy to go into any primary system the governor and Legislature devise,” he said.

But because state lawmakers waited until the end of the session to pass a bill and then adjourned not knowing what Locke would do, they lost precious time that could have been spent educating voters about the new system, Patton said.

For almost 70 years, Washington voters did not have to declare a party preference during primary elections and could mix and match their ballots to suit their tastes — choose a Republican for this office, select a Democrat for that office.

Voters are not prepared to go to the polls and have to request one party’s ballot or another, Patton said, and absentee ballots will be another headache.

In Washington, voters can vote absentee in perpetuity. Every year their ballots are mailed to them.

But what will election officials do this year? How will they know which ballot a voter wants? Do they send voters all major party ballots? Then how do they ensure that voters only cast one ballot?

Under the system approved by the governor, voters do not have to register with a party and no record of which ballot they select will be kept.

That’s great for Washingtonians who like their freedom and do not want to be hindered by party labels, but “it’s an absolute disaster” for election officials, Patton said.

Before Locke vetoed the Legislature’s Cajun system in which candidates from all parties are placed on the primary ballot with the top two vote getters advancing to the general election regardless of party affiliation, candidates were forced to run different kinds of campaigns simultaneously because they did not know which pool of voters to target.

“We were running two campaigns,” Brady, the Tebelius spokesman, said.

Her camp had to be ready to seek the party nod at a nominating convention dominated by party delegates while also laying the groundwork to cast a wider net in case independents and Republicans would be selecting the nominee in a more traditional primary.

The major political parties had threatened to boycott the primary if the Cajun system became law.

Republicans and Democrats would have held caucuses and eventually nominating conventions to choose their standard-bearers rather than let members of other parties have a say in the selection, party leaders said.

The parties detest cross-party voting, and a Cajun system would have allowed just that.

Even under the Montana plan, partisans can choose a ballot other than their own party’s since registration is not required. Independents must select one party’s ballot.

Party leaders are not completely satisfied with the Montana system as a result.

“The system still doesn’t safeguard against mischief by other parties,” said Kirstin Brost, communications director for the Washington Democratic Party.

“I’m pleased that we have a primary,” said Shaun Cross, a Republican running in the open 5th district. “Better that than having party conventions.”

Nonetheless, Cross believes the Legislature shirked its duty in leaving the ultimate decision to Locke.

The Legislature approved a Cajun-style system but the law had a provision that if the governor vetoed it, a Montana-like plan would automatically take effect.

“It will be fairly confusing,” Cross said. “Some voters will show up on Election Day and turn away in disgust,” he predicted, noting that voters adored their quirky blanket-primary system and will not take kindly to being told they must choose candidates from only one party’s slate.

“The parties got their way on this,” he said.

State Senate Majority Leader Luke Esser, another Republican running in the 8th district House race, said he is happy to have the Montana system in place because it “makes it more possible for a grassroots types of candidate to be successful.

“It would have been more expensive to appeal to voters in either a [Cajun] or the old blanket system,” he said.

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