High court clears way for partisan primary ballots

Seattle Post-Intelligencer


OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The state Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for Washington to conduct a Montana-style primary this September that will limit voters to one party's ballot for the first time in nearly 70 years.

The high court, acting with unusual haste, turned aside an effort by the state Grange to scuttle the primary system that Gov. Gary Locke created with an unusual veto on April 1.

The Grange, original sponsor of Washington's popular blanket primary, argued earlier Thursday that Locke's veto violated the state Constitution.

"It was illegal. It was crafty," Grange attorney James Johnson told the high court.

The court's brief order, signed by Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, didn't explicitly say Locke was within his legal rights, but did reject the Grange's effort to halt the Montana-style system.

Opinions - apparently a majority opinion and a dissent - will be issued "in due course," the chief justice wrote. No vote was listed for the nine-judge court, but it was clear there was division. Alexander said he wrote for "a majority of the court."

The ruling came down less than six hours after the oral arguments before a packed courtroom at the Temple of Justice.

A jubilant Locke said the high court had upheld his veto and preserved a new system that will ensure voters maximum choice in the November general election. A rival plan would have doomed minor parties and could have disenfranchised many voters by advancing finalists from the same party to the November runoff, he said.

"I was acting on behalf of the voter," the governor told a news conference.

The political parties were happy that their preferred primary stands.

The Grange, though, said the order ensures a disastrous election this September.

"This will be Locke's legacy," Johnson said. "Voters will recoil at having to pick a party ballot and 20 to 30 percent of the ballots will be voided" when voters mistakenly or purposely mark more than one ballot.

State officials tried to glean what they could from the brief order.

"It seems likely that they conclude that the Legislature and governor acted in accordance with the Constitution," said Solicitor General Narda Pierce, who defended Locke.

For nearly 70 years, Washington used a wide-open primary system that allowed a voter to pick a favorite candidate for each office, regardless of party label. Ticket-splitting has been permissible - and widespread.

But federal courts have held that the blanket primary violates the political parties' right to pick their own standard-bearers.

Forced to devise a new system, lawmakers sent Locke an unusual bill that included both of the main rival plans: a Top 2 primary that would advance the two top vote-getters for each office to the November election, regardless of party, and a Montana-style primary that would require a voter to take part in only one party's primary, with the ballot choice kept private.

Lawmakers listed the Top 2 plan as their main choice, with the Montana system included as a backup in case the Top 2 was thrown out by the courts.

Locke, however, vetoed the Top 2 and left the Montana plan, saying it would end litigation and uncertainty.

The Grange, which also is sponsoring Initiative 872 to create the Top 2 system, went to court.

Locke essentially substituted his own judgment for the Legislature's, Johnson told the justices on Thursday. The governor's veto left the bill with contents that don't match its title, or legal description, he said. That made the veto unconstitutional and the Top 2 system should be restored, he said.

Pierce said both the original legislation and the version created by Locke fit within what she called a general title.

She said the governor was perfectly within his right to take part in the legislative process as he did.

A veto sometimes produces an outcome the Legislature doesn't like, including a complete veto that throws out an entire bill, she said.

The Grange also attacked the veto on other grounds the court didn't take up on Thursday, including potential violation of the constitutional guarantee of "absolute secrecy" in voting and the right to vote "at all elections."

The justices, unusually engaged, frequently interrupted the arguments to ask questions and offer opinions.

"It's obvious the Legislature wanted a Top 2 primary," said Justice Richard Sanders.

But Justice Bobbe Bridge said the whole point of a veto is to undo something the Legislature wanted.

"The governor isn't there as a potted palm to sign their legislation," but is permitted to exercise independent judgment, she said.

The case is Washington State Grange et al v. Gary Locke et al. The case number is 75384-9.


On the Net:

Legislature: http://www.leg.wa.gov

Gov.: http://www.governor.wa.gov

Grange: http://www.wa-grange.org

I-872: http://www.blanketprimary.org



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