Editorial: Lawmakers should act on Washington primary

The Daily Herald Editorial


Washingtonians are an independent lot, capable of making their own good choices.

The primary-election system we've used since 1935 has been a proud example. The blanket primary, sparked by a Washington State Grange initiative, allows voters to cast their ballot for any candidate they choose in a primary election, regardless of party affiliation. It also provides voter privacy, ensuring that party leaders -- or anyone else -- won't have access to any information about how an individual voted.

Alas, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that our primary in unconstitutional because it forces parties to allow non-members to help decide its nominees for office. The suit, filed against the state by the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties, followed a court ruling that invalidated California's relatively new blanket primary.

Our state is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, but based on the California case, the chance of success appears dim. If the high court upholds the circuit court, either directly or by opting not to hear the appeal, Washington could be left without a primary system for the 2004 election.

Picture that. No voting in September, just a general election in November that could include long lists of candidates for single offices. Think of the scores of names that Californians faced on the gubernatorial recall ballot. What a mess.

The Legislature can avoid that, and protect citizens' cherished independence, by approving a new system now. We favor the one being pushed by Secretary of State Sam Reed and the Grange, a modified blanket primary in which the top two vote-getters in each race, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. This plan wouldn't require citizens to declare a party affiliation, and would be easy for local election officials to implement because it's so similar to the current system.

Reed believes such a system would pass constitutional muster because it involves picking the finalists for a general election rather than choosing party nominees. It does raise the prospect of two candidates from the same party advancing to the general election, but that would be rare. In some cases, it might have the happy consequence of forcing candidates to bring their positions more in line with the majority of their constituents, encouraging moderation over polarization.

The parties, of course, oppose this, favoring a system that would give them maximum control, forcing voters to declare party membership and giving the parties such information for their mailing lists.

Washingtonians would recoil from that kind of heavy-handedness. They value their privacy and their freedom of choice. Lawmakers should act during the current session to protect both.



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