Washington will appeal blanket primary ruling

September 19, 2003

Associated Press
King 5 News

OLYMPIA, Wash. Washington state will appeal a federal court decision that abolished the state's popular 68-year-old blanket primary that allows voters to split their tickets and avoid party registration.

Secretary of State Sam Reed, a Republican, and Attorney General Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, announced Friday that the state will ask the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear the decision made by one of its three-judge panels.

The political parties called the new appeal a big waste of taxpayer money on a challenge that has no chance of succeeding.

The appeals panel, drawing from a U.S. Supreme Court decision that threw out a virtually identical system in California in 2000, said allowing all registered voters to pick nominees clearly violates the parties' constitutional right to pick their own standard bearers.

The state and the state Grange, which pushed through the system in 1935 as an initiative to the Legislature, vowed to keep fighting.

"Speaking for all of us, we are fully committed to fighting as hard as we can, for as long as we can, to preserve the blanket primary in the state of Washington," said Reed, the state's chief elections officer.

He said states are given wide latitude to craft election systems that fit their particular needs and desires.

"The blanket primary is what fits right in with the history, the populist tradition and the sense of independence, the sense of `I vote for the person.' We're going to exercise every possible route to protect the blanket primary," Reed said.

Gregoire said the state will ask the San Francisco-based appeals court to take up the case, paying more attention to the state's argument that Washington's system and traditions are considerably different from California's.

She conceded the odds of a rehearing aren't great, historically less than 5 percent, with even fewer cases reversed. If the state gets no satisfaction there, lawyers will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, she said.

Although some legal scholars say the Supreme Court isn't likely to take the case, Gregoire and Reed said they refuse to accept that.

"We do have a chance of success," Reed said.

"I remain optimistic," said Olympia attorney Jim Johnson, representing the Grange, which will be part of the appeals.

"Our state's constitution gives voters a right to absolute secrecy and privacy. We will defend that right to the Supreme Court if necessary," he said.

The Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties, sponsors of the successful challenge to the wide-open primary, had urged the state to drop the idea of an expensive appeal.

"It's a waste of taxpayer money," state GOP Chairman Chris Vance said in an interview. "I don't know any lawyer who believes the state is going to win this case. What they are doing by delaying this through appeal is opening up the possibility of creating chaos in the middle of the 2004 campaign.

"They are making a political decision, because they think the blanket primary is popular. Politics trumps all."

Democratic Chairman Paul Berendt concurred. "All they're doing is wasting all this money that could be spent on the needs of the state.

"Auditors and election officials of this state are looking for resolution, because they have an election to run. The secretary of state is being very negligent ... by pursuing this frivolous appeal."

Gregoire said the Legislature budgeted $135,000 for legal bills for the appeals, and that attorneys should be able to complete even a Supreme Court appeal within those funds.

Reed urged the Legislature to enact a backup system, since the state currently is without a system. He proposed a "Washington Primary," based on the so-called Cajun Primary in Louisiana 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.

A second option, he said, would be an "Open Primary, Private Choice," that requires 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 alternative might be a situation where there is no primary and all candidates are placed on one general election ballot, Reed said.


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