State Blanket Primary Dealt Another Blow

October 24, 2003

By KOMO Staff & News Services

OLYMPIA, WA- Washington's political parties declared the state's popular blanket primary dead Friday, following the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' refusal to hear the state's appeal of a September decision that outlawed the system.

However, state lawyers vowed to fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to restore the system that allows voters to split their tickets and avoid party registration.

"The blanket primary is dead," declared state Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt. "We didn't expect anything else. I'm pleased, but not the least bit surprised."

GOP state Chairman Chris Vance added: "Our lawyers believe this is legally the end of the line for the blanket primary. I don't know any lawyer who thinks the U.S. Supreme Court will hear this case."

Attorney General Christine Gregoire and Secretary of State Sam Reed, both strong defenders of the blanket primary, said the state will ask the high court to take the case.

"We recognize it is ... a long shot, but in light of the strong popularity of this system, we feel we need to ask for review," said James Pharris, senior assistant attorney general. "We feel we have some strong arguments to make."

Reed, the state's chief elections officer, said the 9th Circuit ruling was expected, but that the state still strongly believes the state's time-honored system is constitutional.

"The blanket primary is overwhelmingly the system voters prefer and a good fit for Washington," he said. "We believe in voter freedom on the ballot and will fight for this case in court as long as we have a chance to succeed."

The state Grange, the original sponsors of an initiative to the Legislature that created the blanket primary in 1935, also will press the Supreme Court to hear the case.

"We've made a commitment to take this as far as we can in the legal process," said Grange spokesman Larry Clark. "Naturally, we're disappointed, but we intend to have our argument heard in the highest court in the country."

Most legal scholars say the court is unlikely to grant review. The high court has previously held that a similar system in California was unconstitutional.

The San Francisco-based court unanimously refused to rehear the state's appeal, either by the full court or by a three-judge panel that handed down the original ruling in September. The order was posted Thursday, but parties were notified Friday.

Polls have shown that nine out of 10 voters like the blanket primary system. Most lawmakers, Gov. Gary Locke, Reed and Gregoire have fought to keep it.

It has been on borrowed time, though, since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000 that threw out a virtually identical system in California. The high court, in a 7-2 decision, said allowing all registered voters to pick nominees violates the parties' constitutional right to pick their own standard bearers.

The state got an unexpected reprieve when Tacoma-based U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess allowed the state system to stand, saying there were significant differences between the history and political culture in California and Washington.

The Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties then appealed to the 9th Circuit, and won. This is the decision the state wanted reconsidered.

Berendt and Vance said Friday that Locke, lawmakers, Reed and Gregoire should instead collaborate on a replacement system that the Legislature can approve this winter, in time for the 2004 election.

"There is going to be a new primary election system. That is the reality," Vance said. "As of today, that 1935 system is gone. They need to sit down with the Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians and negotiate a new system."

The alternative would be chaos, he and Berendt said. Vance said he doesn't want the parties using conventions to pick their nominees.

Lawmakers are considering two main options:

-A "Cajun Primary," modeled after Louisiana's, where the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party. Voters can split their tickets and wouldn't register by party.

-Open Primary, Private Choice, a system Montana and other states use, requiring voters to take only one party's slate of candidates to choose from. No record would be kept of which ballot the person takes.

The parties want separate party primaries and want a record of which ballot an individual voter requests.


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