Court clears way for new primary - State's voters will pick candidates from one party


Olympia, WA - 6/11/04 - The state Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Washington's new Montana-style primary system Thursday, announcing its decision with rare speed on the same day it heard arguments in the case.
Gov. Gary Locke, whose veto of a rival "Top Two" primary was the subject of the court challenge, said the ruling lets state elections officials proceed with a system that best preserves voters' choices in the general election.

In a major change from the traditional ticket-splitting that Washington voters have enjoyed, they'll be asked Sept. 14 to vote for candidates from only one party.

"Let's be clear: This isn't just about choosing a primary system," Locke said in a news conference called Thursday evening after the court's unexpectedly quick decision. "It is about choosing an overall election system -- primary and general."

The ruling appeared to end legal squabbles over how the state's election system will function -- at least this year -- although political battles still are raging.

"I am grateful that the court reviewed this case in a timely and expedited manner with great sensitivity," said Secretary of State Sam Reed, who had actively campaigned for the "Top Two" option. "This decision helps election administrators to implement a secure primary this September."

Chris Vance, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the ruling reduces confusion.

"If the court had overturned the governor's action, the result would have been absolute chaos," Vance said in an e-mail to reporters.

But backers of the "Top Two" -- a Louisiana-style system that lets only the two candidates receiving the most votes in the primary move on to the general election ballot -- predicted massive confusion ahead for this year's Montana primary.

They also predicted that voter experience with the Montana system will boost public support for Initiative 872. I-872, which is spearheaded by the Washington State Grange, would enshrine a top-two system in future years if it gets on the ballot and voters approve it.

"The best that can be said is that Governor Locke and the Supreme Court have guaranteed double-digit passage of the Grange's initiative at the general election," said James Johnson, the Olympia attorney who argued the Grange's legal challenge of Locke's veto Thursday morning and who also is running for the Supreme Court.

"His legacy will be a disastrous primary election with double-digit voiding of the ballots," Johnson said. He predicted that many ballots will be spoiled because voters will refuse to mark a party preference or will pick candidates from multiple parties.

"As I told the court this morning, Florida was nothing. This will be a disaster," Johnson said. "We'll call it the Locke primary."

Locke said "I don't think there will be confusion if the (ballot) instructions are clear."

The secretary of state will work hard between now and Sept. 14 to educate voters to eliminate any potential confusion, he added.

Under the Montana system, most voters choose candidates from one of three major parties. Meanwhile, minor party and independent candidates move directly to the general election ballot through a separate nomination process that bypasses the primary.

In Thurston County, Deputy Auditor Barbara Sandahl said elections officials were eager for a decision.

"Counties are at a place where they need to start ordering papers and supplies -- everything you have to have in order to conduct an election," Sandahl said before the court ruling.

In arguments earlier in the day, Johnson had said Locke exceeded his veto authority by striking down the Top Two portion of Senate Bill 6453.

Johnson further argued that the veto, which left the Montana primary, creates a conflict between the bill's title -- which refers to creation of a "qualifying primary" -- and its content.

But thanks to what Johnson called Locke's "crafty gubernatorial veto," the result is "a nominating primary, pure and simple," he said.

But Narda Pierce, solicitor general for the Attorney General's Office, which defended Locke's veto, said the Constitution's restrictions on bill titles are meant to help voters and lawmakers understand a measure's content before legislation is adopted so that they can testify or amend it. Those restrictions don't apply after the fact, once a bill becomes a law, she argued.

Pierce also disputed whether the title had a restrictive meaning, saying that either term -- nominating or qualifying -- was sufficient to label the section of law.

"I was confident all along that my veto action was within the scope of my constitutional authority, and the court's order today confirms that," Locke said. He thanked the court for its "remarkably" quick decision.

The court did not explain its decision, but gave indications the ruling wasn't unanimous. The brief order issued by Chief Justice Gerry Alexander late in the day declared only that the Grange's petition was denied and that "opinions will be issued in due course."

Brad Shannon is political editor of The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-753-1688 or



In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]

Back to Current Edition Citizen Review Archive LINKS Search This Site