Political parties send blanket primary to Court of Appeals

OLYMPIA, WA - 4/26/02  -- Washington's major political parties, still hoping to scuttle the state's blanket primary that allows all voters to choose party finalists, say they are appealing a federal judge's decision in favor of the popular system.

The Republican, Democratic and Libertarian parties filed notice of appeal Thursday with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

The case is expected to take until next year to resolve -- longer if it goes all the way to the Supreme Court -- and the state expects to run this year's primary just like always, said Senior Assistant Attorney General James Pharris.

Party leaders said they fully expect to prevail, relying heavily on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that threw out a copycat primary system in California. The high court, in a 7-2 opinion handed down in 2000, ruled it unconstitutional to force the California parties to allow outsiders to help pick their nominees.

The system pioneered in Washington 67 years ago allows all voters to choose their favorite candidate for each office on the primary ballot. Voters do not register by party.

U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess, who sits in Tacoma, threw out the parties' challenge last month. He said the parties haven't demonstrated they are hurt by the blanket primary. He also took pains to say Washington political history and the way it uses the primary are quite different from the California system the high court struck down.

Pharris said Burgess' "good, strong order" gives the state and Grange attorneys strong footing for their appeal. The Grange sponsored the initiative that the legislature adopted in 1935.

State Grange President Terry Hunt ripped the parties' decision to appeal.

"We don't understand why the parties insist on pursuing this unpopular and futile effort to change our primary system," he said. "The people of this state want the right to choose their own candidates."

If the state wins, "We can be a model for other states who want to give primary elections back to the people," Hunt said.

Grange attorney James Johnson of Olympia said he's confident the courts will allow Washington to keep its time-honored system.

But the parties said they have a strong U.S. Supreme Court ruling that should spell victory.

"Our lawyers believe the U.S. Supreme Court was crystal clear and that Judge Burgess was wrong, factually wrong," said Republican state Chairman Chris Vance. "We are confident we will prevail."

Vance said picking candidates is the most important thing a party does, and that independents and Democrats have no business taking part. Only Republicans go to party conventions and adopt the platform, and "it's kind of a crazy system" that allows nonmembers to help determine the party nominees, he said Thursday.

State Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt, commenting after last month's ruling, said, "We believe the courts will agree with us and grant us our constitutional rights."

He said crossover voting is a proven fact and that the parties are harmed because they have no control over who runs under their banner and because allowing outsiders to vote in the primary skews campaign messages and sometimes even changes the outcome.

Attorney General Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and Secretary of Sam Reed, a Republican, had called on their parties to back down. Washington has some of the most competitive campaigns in the country and both major parties are well served by a system that engages voters and produces good nominees, they said after winning last month's ruling.

The parties risk alienating voters by threatening their privacy and their right to crossover voting, Reed said.

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