One thing's a lock for primary: Ballots will make it interesting
P. VOGEL; The News Tribune
May 18, 1004
Washington State - To cast your vote in September's primary election,
you'll either have to navigate your way through one huge ballot or
three or four little ones, depending on where you live.
Either way, you'll probably have to wait a month or more before you'll
know for sure what you'll be facing.
That's because county election officials are still debating how best
to implement the state's new Montana-style primary election system.
They met last week in Wenatchee.
An informal poll of the state's 39 county election officials taken
earlier this month by the Washington Secretary of State's Office found
22 counties, including Pierce and King, were leaning toward one big
"consolidated ballot." It would feature four sections: candidates
for nonpartisan offices, and those seeking Democratic, Libertarian
and Republican nominations. Voters would have to make their selections
from one party's section, plus the nonpartisan section.
The other 17 counties favored using separate ballots for each party
and for nonpartisan races. Voters would get to fill out only one party's
ballot, plus the nonpartisan ballot, though there was some discussion
about putting the nonpartisan ballot on the back of each party's ballot
to save money on paper and postage.
No matter what each county decides, Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy
predicted, "There are people who are going to be very upset.
There are going to be people who show up and say, 'What the heck is
That's because for almost 70 years, the state has had a blanket primary
election system that allowed voters to skip around the ballot without
regard for party affiliation. You could pick a Republican for governor,
a Democrat for U.S. Senate and a Libertarian for state House.
But the state parties sued to overturn the system in 2000, charging
that it violated their rights to choose the candidates that represent
them in the general election. The federal courts sided with the parties,
forcing legislators and Gov. Gary Locke into the tricky position of
having to come up with a replacement for a system that polls showed
was overwhelmingly popular with Washington voters.
The result was a system patterned after Montana's. It will require
voters to chose candidates from only one party. Though there are still
legal challenges pending that could get rid of the Montana system
before Sept. 14, counties are proceeding with plans to implement it.
The problem is, the new law doesn't say what those ballots should
Instead, it leaves that task to county election officials.
It's a tough spot for most county election officials, said Secretary
of State Sam Reed, the state's top elections officer and a former
Thurston County auditor.
His office, which sent representatives to the auditors conference,
is working with county officials to draft administrative codes and
guidelines for assembling the ballots and counting, or - perhaps more
significantly - rejecting votes.
Reed lobbied against the Montana system. He argued that the state's
voters, who have a reputation for being independent-minded, would
bristle if asked to identify with a party - even if only for one day,
like under the Montana system.
He and many county auditors are planning extensive advertising campaigns
to alert people to the new system and explain how to vote. Still,
Reed predicted, "Some people are just going to go in and ignore
the instructions and vote how they please."
Those votes might not count. That's because the new law requires voters
to mark only one party's ballot in the case of the separate ballots
or, in the case of the consolidated ballot, to indicate at the top
of the ballot which party's primary they are participating, then mark
only that party's section.
Votes in another party's section of the consolidated ballot won't
be counted, nor will any votes for partisan offices if the voter fails
to select a party.
Christina Bridston, programs coordinator for the Washington Association
of County Officials, said that when an image of a sample consolidated
ballot was projected onto a big screen at the Wenatchee conference,
"I thought, 'Oh my God, when the voters see this ...'"
Reed said voters might be less inclined to cast void crossover votes
if they're faced with separate ballots.
Dean Logan, director of King County's Records, Elections and Licensing
Services Division, said his county is conducting a focus group with
voters "to see what they do with the various ballot types."
Among the options his office is considering are color-coding the different
sections and attaching instructions on a perforated flap that voters
will have to remove before they can access their ballots.
Bridston said the consolidated ballots will likely be cheaper for
counties. It could cost a lot to mail four ballots, especially in
counties with a lot of absentee voters, like Pierce County, where
70 percent of the 370,000 registered voters are signed up to vote
McCarthy's office estimated that using four ballots would cost $1.7
million, or $757,000 more than it had budgeted for a blanket primary.
If all 39 counties went with the four-ballot system, it would cost
$5 million more than they had collectively budgeted for a blanket
primary, according to a survey by Bridston's group. Locke pledged
$6 million to compensate counties for the overruns this year.
That probably won't make the headaches go away for voters - or for
"My staff is going to deserve a well-deserved vacation when this
is all said and done," McCarthy said.
Kenneth P. Vogel: 360-754-6093
How to get involved
The Pierce County Auditor's Office is accepting public comment on
the ballot proposals at firstname.lastname@example.org or 253-798-7427.
On the Net
•Pierce County Auditor's Office: www.co.pierce.wa.us/pc/abtus/ourorg/
•Washington Secretary of State's Office