Reaction mixed on Washington's Top 2 primary ruling

Associated Press and Staff

March 18, 2008

OLYMPIA, WA - Washington state's penchant for voting for the candidate instead of the party has a new lease on life.

Under a surprise 7-2 ruling handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, the state is allowed to begin using a "Top 2" primary that would put all candidates on the same ballot and advance the top two finishers to the general election, regardless of party.

The first such primary is set for Aug. 19, when voters will pick finalists for governor, Congress, the judiciary, and Legislature.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat who defied her party to back the wide-open style of voting that welcomes independents, called it "a new day for democracy in Washington state."

Washington voters approved the system in 2004 after the high court struck down the state's time-honored and popular "blanket" primary. That system -- in which all candidates appeared on the same ballot, with the top finisher from each party advancing to the general election -- was thrown out in 2000 when the court ruled that California's similar primary was an unconstitutional intrusion on parties' right to choose their nominees.

The blanket primary dated to the 1930s and allowed crossover voting -- a Democrat for governor, for instance, a Republican for Congress, a Green Party candidate for the Legislature.

But in Tuesday's ruling, the court said the Top 2 system isn't a nominating process, picking one Democrat and one Republican for the finals, but rather a winnowing, qualifying election.
Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that overturning Washington's plan would have been an "extraordinary and precipitous nullification of the will of the people."
In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said Washington's system would cause a political party to be associated with candidates who may not represent its views.

The Washington Grange, the populist farm advocacy group that sponsored the original blanket primary and pushed the ballot initiative that created the Top 2 plan, was thrilled by the decision.

"It shows that elections belong to the people, not to the parties," said Terry Hunt, the group's government affairs manager. "It means the world to voters."

Analysts said the system should favor centrists with crossover appeal over hard-edged partisans. The new method also offers the intriguing possibility of November elections between two candidates from the same party.

Had the system been in place in 1996, for instance, the governor's race would have been between two Democrats, Gary Locke and Norm Rice, because both received more votes than conservative Republican Ellen Craswell in the primary. A state Senate race in central Washington's Yakima Valley last fall would have had two Republican finalists.

The Top 2 system, patterned loosely after Louisiana's system, could begin spreading to other states with the green light from the high court, said a jubilant Secretary of State Sam Reed.

"I think it could sweep the nation, and will probably start in the West, probably by way of initiative in Oregon and California, out here where reforms have been so popular in the past century," Reed said in an interview.

Alaska and California later adopted the system, prompting the political parties to sue. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the system as an infringement on the parties' First Amendment rights to pick their own standard-bearers.

Washington shifted to a "pick-a-party" primary that required voters to restrict themselves to one party's line of candidates. That was hugely unpopular and voters quickly approved a Top 2 replacement system in 2004, although it has never taken effect due to a lengthy challenge by the parties. The state lost in the lower courts, and most legal scholars held out little hope that the high court would relent.

The Top 2 system has the look and feel of the old "blanket primary," listing all candidates for each office and allowing voters to pick a favorite, regardless of party label.

State Democratic Chairman Dwight Pelz said the decision complicates Washington elections, and that the party will insist on the right to designate its favorites on the primary ballot.

State Republican Chairman Luke Esser expressed disappointment.

"The Top Two Primary denies the voters a real choice because it would eliminate all but one party from Washington's general election ballot in some parts of the state," said Esser. "The Washington State Republican Party will be discussing the Supreme Court ruling and the options available to us in the days and weeks ahead. We will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to defend our constitutionally-protected right of association."

Reed, the chief elections official, said parties may endorse for each office, but cannot unilaterally choose a nominee for November. He said party endorsements can be emphasized in the Voters' Pamphlet and elsewhere, but not likely on the ballot itself.
Republicans were conferring with their attorneys before discussing the ruling publicly.
Candidates will have to appeal to the broad middle of the electorate and not just their bases on the left and the right, independent pollster Stuart Elway said.

"People don't want to restrict themselves to one party line, and even partisans like to skip back and forth once in a while," Elway said. "There are very few straight ticket voters here."
The greatest impact will likely be in races for the Legislature, where one-party districts may become suddenly competitive in the general election. For example, voters in heavily Democratic Seattle might choose between a moderate centrist or a liberal firebrand instead of a shoo-in Democrat and a token GOP candidate.

The change will likely be less noticeable in statewide races such as the widely anticipated rematch between Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi, who narrowly lost in 2004.
Gregoire didn't comment on the politics of the decision, but Rossi spokeswoman Jill Strait said the style of primary makes little difference.

"In our race, it's probably a wash. We're running the campaign we've always been running. Our focus is on facing Christine Gregoire in November, not on the primary."



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