Lawmakers modifying old primary
Major parties critical of lawmakers' attempt to retain elements of open voting system

David Ammons - Associated Press

Jan. 31, 2001 - OLYMPIA, WA _ Washington's major political party leaders on Tuesday rebuffed legislative efforts to retain key features of the state's popular "blanket" primary, but lawmakers said they won't back down.

Newly elected Republican Chairman Chris Vance, traveling to the Capitol on his first full day on the job, joined Democrats and Libertarians in demanding the right to restrict voters to one party's nominating ballot -- and to have at least voluntary registration by party.

Libertarian Party attorney John Mills of Tacoma urged lawmakers to cooperate with the parties in crafting a new primary system, calling the situation "the Cuban missile crisis of Washington politics."

If the Legislature plays hardball, the issue will be settled by the federal courts, he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last summer that states cannot coerce political parties to choose their nominees through a "blanket" primary that allows all voters to take part. Washington has had such a system since 1935.

The high court's decision came in a California case, leading Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, to complain Tuesday, "It's ironic that California has messed up both our electricity and our elections."

A large majority of legislators oppose changes in the state's 66-year-old primary that allows crossover voting and that allows voters to keep their party preferences private.

Key lawmakers in both houses are trying to preserve as much of the blanket primary as they can persuade the parties to accept.

The bipartisan House Select Committee on Elections has developed a bill that would allow voters to keep their party affiliation private and continue being able to vote for any candidate for any office. The proposal would permit voluntary party registration and would give the political parties a much stronger role in determining their candidates.

A Senate panel, meanwhile, is working on a plan that says if the parties don't back off, the state would switch to a Louisiana-style system where the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff election, regardless of party.

But the party leaders made clear Tuesday that they aren't buying either of those plans. Republican and Democratic state committees met over the weekend and strengthened their resolve to limit their primaries to just their own party nominees. Democrats also want the lists of all who vote in their primaries.

State party chairmen said crossover voting violates the parties' constitutional right to exclude nonmember voters.

"We feel that people of other political persuasions have undue influence in choosing our spokespeople and our own champions," Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt said.

Mischief is possible when crossover voting is allowed, such as the nomination of segregationist David Duke in Louisiana, he said.

Berendt sought to counter the notion that the public overwhelmingly favors the current system.

"There is really no sense of outrage about changes in the blanket primary system," he said.

Opposition at earlier hearings by the secretary of state was orchestrated, he suggested. "This was not an uprising from the grassroots," he said.

But one of his party's legislative leaders, committee co-Chairwoman Val Ogden, D-Vancouver, flatly rejected that. She said public opinion is virtually unanimous in opposition to changes.

"Voters are pretty clear -- I think there is a sense of outrage about it," she told Berendt.

Berendt also told a hearing that the blanket primary has led to a "homogenization of politics in Washington state," with both parties fuzzing their differences so they can appeal to the same 10 percent of the electorate in the middle.

Vance was more conciliatory, but told lawmakers "Whether you or we like it or not, the blanket primary is unconstitutional and we cannot retain it. You're making this change because the United States Supreme Court is compelling you to."

Nearly all states limit a voter to one party primary ballot, apparently without major complaint, he said.

Despite the parties' hardline position, legislators continued to stick by their efforts to minimize changes in the blanket primary.

Memo: Ogden said the parties are showing a major "disconnect" with public opinion. Her co-chair, Dave Schmidt, R-Bothell, said in a later interview that the parties' statements were discouraging, but that the Legislature remains resolute.

"The Legislature will satisfy the public over the parties," he said. "We are giving the parties about 70 percent of what they want, and any of the other options the Legislature or the citizens have will severely damage the parties."

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