Blanket primary back in court

Party leaders, state officials seek quick resolution


OLYMPIA, WA - 3/7/02 -- After staying out of the headlines since summer, the tussle over the future of the state's legally embattled blanket primary goes before a federal district court judge in Tacoma on Friday.

The leaders of the state Democratic and Republican parties, who are seeking to scrap the primary for good, and the state officials who are hoping to save it, have asked Judge Franklin Burgess to throw out the other side's case.

Attorneys for both groups will make oral arguments in the hope that Burgess will issue a summary judgment in their favor.

If Burgess doesn't issue a summary judgment, the case is scheduled to go to trial on March 25.

Both sides think they have strong arguments, but no one will be surprised if Burgess holds the case over for trial.

Surprise ruling

"You never know, he might just rule then and there," said Secretary of State Sam Reed, who is strongly in favor of retaining the blanket primary in its current form.

Burgess surprised just about everyone last summer when he refused to throw out the primary, even though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that a similar primary system in California was unconstitutional.

Burgess said the political parties had not made their case that the Washington system was identical to the one in California and would need to do so in trial before it could be struck down.

Washington's blanket primary, which goes back to the 1930s, has long allowed voters to vote for any candidate, regardless of political party.

Those defending it, such as Reed and most major elected officials, say that the state's independent-minded voters prize that freedom.

Political party leaders, though, say the purpose of primary elections is for parties to choose which candidates represent their message in general elections.

The wide-open nature of the blanket primary robs the parties of the ability to more carefully choose those candidates, leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties argue.

"Obviously, the primary election exists to choose one Democrat and one Republican for the general election," said Chris Vance, executive director of the state Republican Party.

No legislative backup plan

Last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court decision placed the Washington primary in peril, state legislators attempted to craft a new system that would both be legal and retain the independence of the blanket primary.

Despite numerous efforts, they failed.

"We tried everything we could, and nothing took," said Rep. Val Ogden, the Vancouver Democrat who led last year's effort. "The thing we couldn't get around is that people want to keep the blanket primary."

Burgess' surprise decision to not throw out the primary without a trial gave new hope to its supporters, who now believe they can make a potent argument that the Washington and California primaries are substantially different.

"When we put the blanket primary in a Washington context, it's a different animal," said state Assistant Attorney General Jeff Even. "In California, they grafted the blanket primary onto a system that was still about picking party nominees. Here, the primary was always for the people, not the parties."

Vance dismissed those differences as "semantics."

Even if Burgess upholds the blanket primary, Vance predicted ultimate victory for the parties.

"Unless the Supreme Court somehow changes its mind about blanket primaries, we are eventually going to win," Vance said. "We will persist. We will spend as much as it takes. We're very confident that the facts are on our side."

Legislators have avoided proposing new primary fixes this year, waiting to see the outcome of the trial.

If Burgess were to ultimately throw out the primary, the Legislature would have to reconvene for a special session later this spring or summer and make another go at finding a replacement.

If they don't -- or can't -- the state would have no primary at all heading into the November general election.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the court, in its wisdom, will see that our primary is different than California," Ogden said.


On the Web:

- Redistricting Commission: new legislative district boundaries


State Democrats


State Republican Party

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