One thing's a lock for primary: Ballots will make it interesting

KENNETH 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 going on?'"

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 look like.

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 absentee.

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 county auditors.

"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 or 253-798-7427.

On the Net

•Pierce County Auditor's Office: aud/default.htm

•Washington Secretary of State's Office



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