Thursday, September 2, 2004

Selection 2004: Primary-ly Geared to Generate Lawsuits

Washington state has a new Primary Election system this year, as mandated by a court decision.  We used to have a “blanket primary”, where anyone could vote for any candidate — a Democrat in this race, a Republican in that one, and so forth.  In our new system — the so-called “Montana” style (or semi-open) — voters must select a single party and then vote only for people running under that party.  (Everyone gets to vote in the “Non-Partisan” races, like for Judge — we call them non-partisan because there’s no explicit political party listed, but we all know every one of the candidates has a political agenda of his or her own which may color how they perform once in office.)  The winner from each of the main parties (Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian), plus any minor party candidates, ends up on the General Election ballot come November.

Needless to say, a lot of people are angry about this, because it changes how they have been able to vote in the past.  I certainly understand that, because I, too, liked that freedom.  But people miss an important fact there, the purpose of this sort of a Primary Election:

The Primary Election is not intended to winnow the field down to just two candidates.  (At least not in most states.  Some use the “Louisiana” style, which does just that: if the top two vote getters happen to be from the same party, those two end up in the General Election.)  Instead, the Primary Election’s purpose is to choose the candidate from each party.  To that end, the parties are right in wanting only Democrats to vote for Democrat candidates, and only Republicans to vote for Republicans.  Or at least Democrats-for-the-moment: if you are willing to vote only for Democrats, they’ll (grudgingly) take you, no matter what party your official registration is with (if any).

Part of the goal here is to prevent “spoilers”.  You may not care who gets the nod from your favorite party (or it may be in the bag), but you may feel that one candidate in the opposition party has a greater chance of beating out your party, so you might want to throw your vote to his in-party opponent in order to get the less “dangerous” candidate into the General Election.  Needless to say, the political parties don’t like such “spoilers”.  One way around them is to set things up so that you can still vote as a “spoiler”, but you have to be one across the board: if you want to vote for anyone from that other party, you can only vote for that party.  (Or you can still cross party lines and have your ballot invalidated.)

And that’s what my big concern is with this election.

There are two balloting methods going on.  In most of the state, voters will declare which party they intend to vote for, are given the ballot for that party (all three ballots have the non-partisan section attached), and away they go to vote.  There are two downsides to this: first, each precinct has to have enough ballots for every registered voter (although at best half will actually vote) to vote in any party, even Libertarian (which is apt to actually get maybe 5%, tops); this triplication can be expensive.  Second, this presumably means publicly declaring your party intention to people who could be your friends (or enemies) and who might be taken aback at a party affiliation (even if only temporary) which does not match their own; I’m sure there are ways to avoid such declaration, though.

But for six counties — Snohomish, King, Pierce, Kitsap, Klickitat, and Chelan, which contain large Washington cities such as Everett, Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Bremerton, and Wenatchee — there is none of this triple ballot stuff.  Each person gets a single ballot, marks a preferred party, and votes accordingly.  But if there is any crossing of party lines (intentional or accidental), including marking the wrong party and then voting consistently beyond that, those votes are invalidated:
[Secretary of State Sam] Reed expects a number of ballots will be tainted, with voters neglecting to mark their party preference or trying to vote for candidates of more than one party. Those votes won’t count.
Above excerpt from the Seattle Times.  According to the Official Local Voters’ Pamphlet, only votes which don’t conform to the party selection are discounted, rather than the entire ballot.

This thing is bound to be as problematic as the Butterfly Ballot was in Florida in 2000.  In the other counties, there’s no question about keeping to the selected party, but in several of the largest cities in the state — and in the strongest Democratic areas, if that’s important — ballots which can be expected to cause confusion are being used, in the name of saving money.  (Which I’m all for, mind you!)  But you have to admit, things look a little suspicious.

If there are any close races from those counties, you can expect lawsuits up the butt and new buzz phrases to drive “hanging chad” out of the vocabulary.  The state had better plan on recording all the invalid votes in order to provide statistics to refute those lawsuits, and have backup plans in place for handling recounts.

Fortunately (perhaps), Initiative 872 comes along in November, and if it passes (which is considered likely), will move us to a “Louisiana” style primary (the old “blanket primary” was deemed unconstitutional).  Of course, the political parties are campaigning against it, “saying it would deprive voters of party choice and could disenfranchise those who back minor-party candidates.”  (The first part is also known as “It would take away some of our power.”  The second part is truer, but if you can’t make Top Two in September, hon, you ain’t gonna make it in November, either.)

Updated on April 14, 2011
Initiative 872 passed.  The political parties sued.  The Ninth Circuit Court declared it unconstitutional in 2005.  Finally, the US Supreme Court upheld the initiative in 2008.

The net effect being that now the purpose of the primary is to narrow the field of candidates to two.

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