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Sunday, February 20, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bizarre state primary, caucus system allows two votes for president

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA - Washington voters get a special deal in the coming weeks of the presidential campaign: They can vote twice.

They can vote for two different candidates of different parties, or cast two votes for their favorite candidate.

The primary is Feb. 29, and is generating considerable interest. Voter-registration requests, which had been running at 200 a week before this month, hit 2,500 last week, the deadline for registering to vote in the primary.

A week after the primary, Washington voters get a second shot, when the Democratic and Republican parties hold their respective presidential caucuses.

Consider it one of the quirks of Washington's evolving system of choosing presidential nominees.

Then consider this: Many of the primary votes from Washington won't even count toward the nomination. The only value it has is to candidates who want to win headlines at a key point in the campaign.

The primary has been hampered by two things:

Political parties are reluctant to abandon the caucuses favored by party insiders. And voters are reluctant to declare a party affiliation to get a meaningful role in selecting presidential candidates.

Until 1992, Washington selected electoral delegates only through caucuses. The state's primary grew out of a 1989 citizen-petition drive to the Legislature led by a group of political activists unhappy with the caucus system.

The activists argued that caucuses - neighborhood meetings where party members vote for their preference - were too easily manipulated. Critics say they still are.

"We've run into a decade of manipulation by those who are controlling the system," said Ross Davis, one of the sponsors of the initiative and state GOP chairman from 1973 to 1977. "When I was chair of the Republican Party, hell, I manipulated it, too. And anybody who says you don't is pulling your chain."

But the primary has not yet proved popular with voters. In 1996, 24 percent of registered voters cast ballots. This year Secretary of State Ralph Munro hopes that will climb to 33 percent.

And the primary is not exactly as Davis and his fellow reformers envisioned it. It has become a stepchild to the caucus.

Primary votes for Democratic challengers Bill Bradley or Al Gore won't be counted by the Democratic Party when it selects delegates. Rather, the vote is a popularity contest; delegates will be decided in the caucuses.

On the Republican side, 12 of 37 delegates will be won in the primary; the others are up for grabs in the caucuses.

And there's a catch: Primary votes for Republican candidates won't count unless the voter signs a pledge that he or she really is a registered Republican. (Democrats have the same requirement, but it hardly matters since the votes won't count.)

Delegates chosen by the primary and the caucuses will vote to nominate candidates' at this summer's national political conventions.

If history holds true, most voters in Washington won't declare a party preference. Munro predicts at least two-thirds of voters in the primary will choose an "unaffiliated" ballot. In 1996, the vast majority of Washington voters chose unaffiliated ballots, with more than 80 percent of voters in some counties refusing to be formally identified with either party.

That saves Washington voters from having to declare a party affiliation, though that independence comes at the cost of casting a vote that the parties ignore.

So, in a primary that will cost as much as $4 million, what do Washington voters get?

Despite the primary-caucus confusion, Munro said this already brought the most vibrant and up-close presidential campaign Washington residents have seen. More candidates have spent more time in the state - albeit mostly in Seattle - than in years past.

Bradley was here yesterday for his second trip in a week. Tipper Gore and Ernestine Bradley arrive tomorrow; John McCain Wednesday; George W. Bush's wife, Laura, Thursday, and Vice President Gore Saturday.

Munro said this year's primary will be more successful than the previous two because it is being held earlier, so there is still an open race in both parties.

No matter that most of the votes cast Feb. 29 won't win the candidates any delegates, he said: The voters feel they have a choice.

"We'll have over a million people vote," he said. "Those people will really give a clear indication of how Washington state feels about the candidates."

But Davis, the former GOP chairman, said the voters should know the truth about the unaffiliated ballots.

"The Democrats at least tell you your vote has no effect," he said. "The unaffiliated ballot is just a myth. It's hoodwinking people. It's just air."

Even if the results are unofficial, early calendar dates may give the primary more meaning.

It's the fist major vote on the Democratic side since the New Hampshire primary. And it comes a week before Super Tuesday - March 7 - when 14 states vote, including New York, California, Massachusetts, Ohio and Georgia.

By the time Washington voters make their way to party caucuses that same night, Super Tuesday results will be in and the nominations could be wrapped up.

For at least one presidential candidate, unofficial votes on Feb. 29 could make the difference between victory and defeat.

"This is Bradley's last shot," said Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, a Bradley backer. "If he does well in the primary, I think that will carry him into the next week when it is California and New York. If he does poorly here, I think that will make it very difficult for him.

"There is a chance we could do for Bradley what New Hampshire did for McCain."

That's what the pundits call bounce. Delegate counts aside, the hope is that a week before Super Tuesday there is power in a headline saying a candidate "won" in Washington.

But in some camps, pragmatics still prevail. The Gore campaign is focusing on the March 7 caucus, said state director Paul Tewes.

"We really have to pursue the votes that matter," he said.

Tewes was caucus manager for Gore in Iowa, the first contest of the year and one powerful beyond its numbers. He is a fan of the caucus as a way to select presidential nominees.

Voters who take time to attend caucuses are committed party members who "instill a sense of grass-roots activism into the party," Tewes said.

And candidates can focus their message to caucus voters; in a primary, they must stage a more generic campaign.

Washington's demand for a primary election grew out of the state's 1988 presidential caucuses. Republican Pat Robertson dominated the neighborhood meetings; his conservative Christian supporters were well-organized and had the volunteers to make sure all the 1,000-plus caucuses in the state were well attended by Robertson backers.

Critics said the caucuses gave too much power to a few people and didn't reach out to people who weren't involved in party politics.

"We had more people going to the boat show than participating in the process," Munro said.

He cites several problems with a caucus system:

"To succeed at a caucus you have to argue. You have to argue with your neighbor. You have to argue with your neighbor about politics. And people don't like to argue about politics or religion."

Munro heads John McCain's campaign in Washington. He said McCain doesn't have the money to organize a major caucus effort.

Schell said caucuses are a reward for party loyalists.

"I'm a supporter of the party system, but not at the expense of engaging as many citizens in the selection process," Schell said. "Nobody likes to give up turf or power, but in a free society it's important that we engage as many people as possible."

But others think primary elections dilute the nation's political strength.

"The primary weakens the party system," said U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, a former chairwoman of the state Republican Party and leader of the Bush campaign this year.

"In a primary, nobody has to look at issues," she said. "You stop by on your way home from work and vote."

She thinks caucuses have gotten a bad name.

"Right now, it is easy to malign the party and smoke-filled rooms. But that's not the way it is," Dunn said. "It's just people who are more involved in the process and make the effort to get involved."

The system Washington uses to pick presidential candidates could change by the 2004 election.

The National Association of Secretaries of State is promoting regional primaries that would group states together, then rotate the order in which the regions vote from election to election.

U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Washington, also has introduced legislation in Congress to create four regional primaries with 12 or 13 states in each region. They would hold primary elections four months apart and rotate the order from election to election.

David Postman's phone message number is 360-943-9882. His e-mail address is dpostman@seattletimes.com

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Washington primary

Washington's presidential primary is Feb. 29. Voters must already be registered in order to vote in the primary.

At the polling place, or on mailed absentee ballots, voters will have to pick one of three ballots: Republican, Democratic or unaffiliated.

Only Republican ballots will be counted toward selection of delegates to this summer's national convention where nominees will be selected.

For information, call the Secretary of State's Office at 1-800-448-4881, or see the online voters guide at www.secstate.wa.gov/vote2000

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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