A primary-election change could reshape Legislature
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — The prospect of replacing Washington's outlawed blanket primary has state lawmakers seemingly paralyzed with dread.
Many fret their actions could lead to a polarized Legislature, filled with partisan zealots. Some worry about their own political future. Voter backlash is on their minds, too. Doing anything, and even nothing, could lead to chaos in the November election.
"It gives the Legislature the heebie-jeebies," said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. "It's a personal thing. It's something that affects your job."
The Legislature is under the gun to do something because the existing primary was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court last year. State lawyers are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they don't expect the case to get a hearing. A decision is likely next month.
The state's major parties sued to get rid of the blanket primary, which allows people to vote for Democrats and Republicans on the same ballot and doesn't require party registration. The parties argue it lets voters hurt the party they oppose by voting for a weak candidate in that party.
Now the parties are pressuring the Legislature to adopt a new primary system that would give parties more control.
Nobody knows how this is going to turn out, with some people saying chaos is possible this fall, including a tangle of litigation and hundreds of candidates on the November ballot.
Secretary of State Sam Reed, in the middle of the debate for years, believes the parties are angling for a primary system that would ultimately let them control which candidates appear on the ballot as Democrats or Republicans. It's an approach that could lead to only the party faithful getting on the ballot, and gridlock in the Legislature, several lawmakers contend.
"I think people like myself would have a very difficult time," said Rep. Rodney Tom, a moderate Republican from Medina who is serving his first term. "If you went down the Interstate 405 corridor and look at legislators in the suburban moderate districts, every one of us would be up for the ax."
Sen. Darlene Fairley, a Democrat from Lake Forest Park, has similar concerns. Although liberal, Fairley said she has never been a party activist. "I'd be gone," she said. "They only want the 'pure Democrat.' "
The state's party leaders say such claims are far-fetched.
Moderates get elected all the time in states with primary systems similar to what the major parties propose, said Paul Berendt, chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Said GOP Chairman Chris Vance, "I think everybody has become very hysterical for no good reason."
Yet it's clear the state's major parties, which are weak compared with their counterparts in other states, want more control over how candidates get picked.
If the parties get what they want, "I think you'll see the end of phony Republicans and phony Democrats — people running for office in a district, and they really aren't members of that political party," Vance said.
Both parties are aggressively lobbying the Legislature, warning lawmakers to do what the parties want, or else.
"The federal courts have ordered the state of Washington to change their primary system to acknowledge the First Amendment rights of the political party. Some people may hate that. It doesn't matter," Vance said. "The courts have ruled."
Odds are growing that no matter what choice the Legislature makes, the state faces a circus in November. Lawsuits seem certain, and the major parties say they may nominate their own candidates, depending on what action the Legislature takes.
And if the Legislature does nothing, every candidate who pays a filing fee could end up on the November ballot. In the 2000 election, that would have put more than 100 names on the ballot for statewide and federal offices.
Lawmakers even have a name for it — the "jungle general."
Bad news for moderates?
The purpose of a primary, in part, is to winnow out politicians with few prospects of getting elected, and let more viable candidates move forward to the general election. The parties also see it as their way to nominate candidates for the general election.
Under Washington's current system, anybody can run for office as a Democrat or Republican, without party support.
Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, does it all the time.
"They've never given me any money," said Sheldon, who has served in the Legislature since 1991. He has often sided with Republicans during close floor votes and frequently clashed with Democratic Party leaders.
Because the state's blanket primary allows people to vote for Republicans and Democrats on the same ballot, it tends to benefit moderate candidates, said Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University.
"If it's a very liberal district, a blanket primary will get somebody like that," he said. "But when you aggregate that all up to a Legislature ... people elected through the blanket primary are going to look more like the person in the center point of their districts."
The Democratic and Republican parties are pushing for a system that forces people to publicly reveal their political affiliation and prevents voting across party lines.
Secretary of State Reed and others contend that moving to that type of system could ultimately — through court decisions or laws adopted by the Legislature — allow the parties to determine which candidates can run as Democrats or Republicans.
"They could have petitions signed by people registered in the party; they've talked about caucus convention systems where (candidates) would have to receive a nomination by the party or a certain number of delegates at the convention," Reed said. "They do that in some Eastern states to be able to use the party's name on the ballot."
Such a process could limit candidates to people who toe the party line, some lawmakers say.
"The problem is it would get much more down to a litmus test for each party," Tom said. "They'd have three criteria, and if you don't pass those, it's on to the next candidate."
In addition, forcing voters to declare themselves as Democrats or Republicans and vote only for members of their party could reduce voter turnout largely to party activists, said Sen. Don Carlson, R-Vancouver. That would discourage moderates from running for office, because they'd have less chance of winning, he said.
"I refute that entire idea," Berendt said.
The Democratic Party could not limit candidates to party activists, he said.
Both major parties have rules that would allow independents to vote for candidates in the primaries, which should broaden the pool of people voting, the parties contend.
Most states, Berendt said, have a primary system similar to what Washington's parties are asking for, and "moderates seem to get elected all the time. So there's essentially no evidence to back up such a claim."
2 options draw threats
Some lawmakers aren't convinced.
Momentum has been building in recent weeks for an idea both major parties detest: a Louisiana-style primary, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party.
Many legislators believe it would cause the least disruption for voters. Like in Washington's existing primary, voters could cast ballots for candidates regardless of party affiliation.
However, instead of one candidate from each party advancing to the general election, only the two people with the most votes would move ahead.
In some cases, such as in heavily Democratic or Republican districts, that could pit two candidates from the same party against each other in the general election.
Parties don't like the approach, in part, because one party or the other could end up without a candidate on the ballot.
Both parties have vowed to sue the state if the "top-two" system is adopted. Plus, they've threatened to hold their own separate nominating conventions and go to court to keep other candidates off the ballot.
"Even if we lose (in court), we'll still hold the convention and pick one Republican candidate who will get all the Republican money and support, and that matters a lot," Vance said. "We're not threatening anyone. We have no choice."
The Legislature is also considering a separate measure that's similar to the "open primary, private choice" system used in Montana. Voters would pick one party's ballot for the primary, but no record would be kept of their party choice.
The Republican Party will back off a bit if the Legislature adopts that system, Vance said. The primary could go forward in September, and no convention would be held. But Vance said making people publicly declare party affiliation would still be up for discussion.
Berendt, with the Democratic Party, declined to comment on what his party would do.
Both the top-two system and the Montana version would likely hold up to court challenges, said Jeffrey Even, a state assistant attorney general.
If the Legislature does nothing, "We think the most likely outcome is that we simply skip the primary and send everybody to the general," Even said.
That raises the likelihood of a candidate winning office without a majority of the vote. A similar situation happened recently in California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor with 48.6 percent of the vote.
Lawmakers aren't sure what the future holds.
"Everybody is conservative in that they don't like things to change, and the Legislature was designed to do things in tiny increments," Dunshee said. "This can't be a tiny increment."
Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
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