To Associate Freely

[ED: Good in-depth coverage/analysis & readers' comments. PCOs will be getting lots of questions about this. NM]

In 1935, Washington Voters approved a ballot measure that formed Blanket Primary elections.  

Initiated by the Washington State Grange, the Blanket Primary was a system where partisan candidates self-identified their affiliation when filing for office.  This could be done in lieu of any participation with political organizations that met the legal definition of "major party".

In 1935, Washington Voters approved a ballot measure that formed Blanket Primary elections.  

Initiated by the Washington State Grange, the Blanket Primary was a system where partisan candidates self-identified their affiliation when filing for office.  This could be done in lieu of any participation with political organizations that met the legal definition of "major party".  The top vote getter within the group of candidates sharing the same party designation would advance to the general election.  (Third party and independent candidates participated in private nominating conventions where qualifying candidates would appear on general election ballots.)

California voters passed a similar Blanket Primary in the 1990's.  The United States Supreme Court declared the system unconstitutional on free association grounds.  As a result, Washington's longstanding Blanket Primary failed in Federal Court.

In early 2004, with all appeals exhausted, the Washington State Legislature finally acted on a primary election.   The new system featured exclusive major party ballots.  Voters can only choose between the candidates of a respective party.  This is the same system used in Montana.  (Thus the name "Montana Primary")

Washington voters, used to wide open choices, rejected this system in November 2004 by approving I-872, another Grange sponsored initiative.  Like the Blanket Primary, I-872 provided for self-identification by candidates.  It differed from the 1935 effort by only advancing the top two vote getters regardless of party affiliation.

The Washington Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians sued and I-872 was declared unconstitutional on grounds that self-identification violated free association.


The dialog over primary elections finds itself in familiar territory - Federal Court.  

The conflict is based on two notions.

On one side, the Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians, intend to preserve the right of free association in regards to their respective political organizations.

On the other side, the State of Washington along with the Washington State Grange, seek to provide more choices for voters in primary elections.

The line has been drawn in this battle among the establishment.  Both sides make important arguments.  However, as the following perspective offers, we need not choose between the two in the pursuit of moving our democracy forward.


The political parties are saying that I-872 (Top Two Primary) rains on their parade as private political organizations.

The core of their legal argument is Hurley et al. v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Group of Boston.

The case is about the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council refusing to allow a gay group to march in their parade.  The gay group cried foul and sued.  

Ultimately, the US Supreme Court held that to require private citizens who organize a parade to include among the marchers a group imparting a message that the organizers do not wish to convey violates the First Amendment.

Forced association not only infringes on liberty - it could do real harm.  Organizers of Seattle's annual Gay Pride parade knew this when they denied NAMBLA, the North American Man Boy Love Association to march in their event.  And of course, the Irish American gay group could have freely invited the Allied War Veterans Council to march in their own parade - or not.


The State and the Washington Grange interpret the party designation on a ballot as merely a preference of the candidate and in no way binding to a particular political organization.

On the morning of February 6th, 2006 both sides faced a panel of judges in the 9th Circuit Court in Seattle, Washington.

The Court asked Jim Ferris, council representing The State, a hypothetical question,  "Can an extremist candidate like David Duke get on the ballot with a `G' for Grange after their name?"  Ferris affirmed The State's position that ballot designation is a candidate's preference and a respective organization could "get their name out".

When John White, council for the Republicans took the stand, he stated that under CALIFORNIA DEMOCRATIC PARTY V. JONES, a candidate cannot force association upon a political party.

In writing the majority opinion invalidating the Blanket Primary, Justice Scalia said,

"Proposition 198 forces political parties to associate with -- to have their nominees, and hence their positions, determined by -- those who, at best, have refused to affiliate with the party, and, at worst, have expressly affiliated with a rival,"

I couldn't imagine a Grange meeting that would allow anybody to walk in off vote on our matters of business.  Grangers take an oath and pay yearly dues.  Voting on Grange matters is a privilege of its members.  The Grange is officially a non-partisan organization that does not run or even endorse candidates for office.  And why should the Grange, or any organization, go to the trouble and expense of advertising that a candidate is hi-jacking their name?  Such an imbroglio could confuse many voters at the expense of the good name of an organization.


As part of the same ruling stated above, Justice Scalia perfectly encapsulates the essence of associating with a political party,

"In no area is the political association's right to exclude more important than in the process of selecting its nominee. That process often determines the party's positions on the most significant public policy issues of the day, and even when those positions are predetermined it is the nominee who becomes the party's ambassador to the general electorate in winning it over to the party's views."

When invalidating I-872 on free association grounds, Judge Thomas Zilly re-installed the Montana primary system.   In doing so, he effectively sidelined the rank-and-file membership of each party - just as I-872 did!

"The right of people adhering to a political party to freely associate is not limited to getting together for cocktails and canapés," -- wrote Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld when invalidating Washington's Blanket Primary on the grounds of the US Supreme Court decision on Jones.

But it's indeed cocktails, canapés,  (and I should add), pancake breakfasts and potlucks where the party faithful are relegated as their candidates are nominated through a publicly financed and administered effort.


In Washington State, as in Montana, it's not active party members who choose their respective nominees.  Exclusive public primary ballots do.  Ballots featuring a closed roster of candidates for each major party are presented to all voters.  The voter can only choose one ballot or party section.

With the September 2004 "Montana" primary ballot, the voter needed only to search for the two or three contested races among the 14 or so offices up for election, to pick their preferred candidate.  This overwhelming lack of choices was a clear exercise in futility and, in November of 2004, nearly 60% of voters threw it out by approving I-872.


It's feared that given the power, party activists would nominate fringe candidates who are out of touch with mainstream voters.

In a competitive democracy, party activists nominate candidates to their own benefit or peril.  In the end, it's up to voters to decide who gets elected.

My experience with nominating conventions is hardly the so-called "smoked filled back room" of political lore.  

In 2004, I attended the Washington State Democrat Party presidential caucuses.  That year there were no publicly funded presidential primaries.  I went to my local precinct caucus and interacted with my Democrat neighbors.  These were reasonable folks, sincere in their intention to participate in the democratic process.  John Kerry won the largest proportion of delegates from our local caucus.  He went on to win the state and almost the presidency.

I've also participated in nominating conventions as a Precinct Committee Officer (PCO).  In 2005, PCO's from around my legislative district twice converged to nominate a candidate for a recently vacated State House seat.  We nominated Dean Takko who went on to win in a special election.

Both of these nominees well reflected the mainstream values of the region and state.


The parties are rightfully defending their free association rights.  Yet voters don't see it this way.  They see the challenge of I-872 as a power grab by the incumbent major parties.  Voters are very weary of the status quo and identify the existing political duopoly as part of the problem.  

This tension cannot last.

The US Supreme Court has set the stage for the next phase of Washington's democracy in crisis.  Let's look to Jones again.   Justice Scalia said a non-partisan Blanket Primary, " ... has all the characteristics of the partisan blanket primary, save the constitutionally crucial one: Primary voters are not choosing a party's nominee."

It's in these words where we find the potential for the Grange to bring back the choices of the Blanket Primary.  The solution is simply removing party designation from the ballot.

I-872 enjoyed a large margin of victory.  The Top-Two Primary, resurrected in non-partisan form, can easily win again - if only because the incumbent parties insist on forcing the unpopular "Montana Primary" on voters.

Removing designation sounds easy but its no meager cosmetic fix.  It has the potential to decrease participation within an already dysfunctional system.  Too many voters cannot even name their own state legislators.  The respective  "R", "D", minor party initial or "I" for independent, next to a candidates name is an important informational resource.  

Without party designation on ballots, political organizations would still be free to promote their candidates for election.  Rank-and-file members could still organize around predetermined principals.   But those principals will not even merit the value of party designation on a ballot.


In filing its amicus brief in the I-872 appeal, Fairvote - the Center for Voting & Democracy laid out a blueprint to move Washington's elections forward.  

Among other issues, the brief seeks to utilize privately funded political nominations, while at the same time, present voters with the wide-open choices of the late Blanket Primary.

The brief proposes Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).  The key feature is the Instant Runoff (IRV) method of tabulation.  If no candidate wins a majority of first rankings, the candidate with the fewest first rankings is eliminated.  Voters who ranked this candidate now have their vote counted for their second choice, and all ballots are recounted in an "instant runoff."  If a candidate reaches a majority, she or he wins. If not, the process repeats until a candidate wins a majority of votes.

RCV efficiently incorporates the winnowing function of a primary into a single general election.

All candidates would have their affiliation, or lack of, designated on the ballot.

With RCV, major parties could nominate multiple candidates for the ballot.  By offering multiple candidates, a party can attract a wider swath of potential supporters.  Disbursement issues are negated because party members, along with the voters at large who adhere to the values of that party, could rank those nominees as respective first and second or even third choices.

At the same time, voters inclined towards independent or minor party candidates would pick from the larger mixed pool.  

The popular dynamic of the Blanket Primary is voters could jump around from different parties in each respective race.  RCV not only preserves this, it is enhanced as voters could freely rank multiple candidates regardless of party affiliation - in the same race!

Thus we find the reconciliation of the conflict fought among our states' established political forces - ranking candidates works by giving voters more choices and information while protecting the right of free association.  


The grassroots of the major parties are weak.  Their abdication only makes more room for initiative peddlers, media, political consultants and the special interests that fund the whole enterprise.  

The solution is more participation based in the notion of people coming together for the common good.  The party rank-and-file can and need to resolve the current crisis by holding precinct nominating conventions and endorsing Ranked Choice Voting.  The alternative is continued irrelevance.

Currently, registered voters receive partisan ballots regardless of whether they even care to participate in the primary.  Yet as taxpayers, they still pay for them!  We need a decentralized system of private nomination where participation is voluntary.

The Fairvote brief offers many features that merit serious consideration.  It proposes, under established law, to,

  • settle the primary election conflict between our states' political forces
  • protect the right of free association
  • address vote disbursement problems
  • give voters the wide-open choices of the late Blanket Primary
  • shorten the election season
  • save tax dollars
  • introduce a new, dynamic voting experience
  • make races more competitive
  • accommodate overseas (military) voters
  • produce majority winners
  • lessen negative campaigning

In the end it will be up to voters, on their own terms, to cast a ballot in a general election that is free and fair.  Ranked Choice Voting does not change this.

Krist Novoselic
February 21, 2006

< I am running for State Senate in the 44th | REMINDER ... McDermott keynotes 43rd platform meeting >
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Good job, I may not agree with you 100%, but this is a topic we should stop ignoring. Participation in politics, and public life for that matter, is down and is getting worse. As a party, we should start thinking about how we can address this problem. Suing over a primary system probably isn't the best way.

Recently, I've been thinking about the purpose of the Democratic party: elect democrats. Such a simple mission allows us to add on "at any cost," and the cost we seem to be paying lately is a disengaged population. Maybe we should focus on electing Democrats by bringing more people in to the process, by being a more open party.

I blog here.

by emmettoconnell on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 04:20:20 PM PST

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that is why we end up with all this goofy stuff.

In a book I have,
Is Democracy Fair, The Mathematics of Voting and Apportionment, the authors do a good job of describing the pros and cons of various voting methods.  I don't know if all the methods they look at are all the methods out there, or if their conclusions are the best conclusions - the book seems reasonable - and, there are pros and cons for each method.

IMHO the problem is that dominant parties try to limit the participation of other parties, and that is the root of all evil.

IF it were easy for any group to form a party and get on the ballot, THEN people should be required to register as a Cantwell Dem or Moderate Dem or Swinging Dem or Looney Lefty or Whackball Righty or ... and only vote for that party's candidates.

Given how corrupted the system is, I think anyone outta be able to vote for whoever they want, just like we used to, and tough shit to the parties for limiting competition, for offering up crappola candidates, and for making sure only people with jackpots from Safeco or Real Networks can run for office.



by rmdSeaBos on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 09:31:52 PM PST

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Suppose that, in Washington State, a publically-financed party primary did not, by law, produce one candidate, but two. If we suppose that there is always a difference of opinion in every party, why not acknowledge that and have a party primary produce a top two result.

Then we could have a blanket primary to narrow the field, then an election.

by dlaw on Fri Mar 03, 2006 at 09:28:51 AM PST

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The Grange proposal is completely stupid.

The worry is not that party people will nominate fringe candidates in old-style, non-public primaries, but that wealthy donors will. That's what happens now.  

The Grange proposal will result in exactly one Democrat and Republican and the "Fairvote" and IRV nonsense will not come into play. Influential people and donors already seek to noarrow the party field as must as possible as early as possible and now they will have even more power.

The only people who will break into the system are the Ross Perots of the world - wealthy, self-financing candidates.

And all this is done in the name of doing as much as possible to re-create, as closely as possible, an illegal, unconstitutional primary system.

For what?

by dlaw on Wed Mar 15, 2006 at 10:41:47 PM PST

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Although political parties may seem like entities of government, they are not. They are freely associating groups of people.

Freely associating groups of people have a right to poll their members - THEIR MEMBERS. For the purpose of the poll you either are or are not a member of the organization. That is the end of the story. Ranked voting clearly allows members of other organizations to partially or fully include themselves in your poll. That is clearly unconstitutional and therefore this effort is a waste of time.

The 9th Circuit has spoken clearly as has the Supreme Court. Until you come up with a system that allows a political party to poll individual MEMBERS of that organization on a one-member, one-vote, not-a-member, no-vote basis you are just wasting everybody's time.  

by dlaw on Thu Mar 02, 2006 at 02:00:47 PM PST

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Washington has some serious voting problems. Arguably any place where there is voting, there are serious problems when people are lulled into complacency.

The Parties... ehhh.

But people get on-line, or on the television, and talk a lotta crap which has no relation to anything at all.

I need a resolution for my precinct caucus; if you can't deliver, go back to some cave in VA.

by m3047 on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 11:16:52 PM PST

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I agree with emmettoconnell that this is an important issue, and that RCV/IRV or something similar could be a valuable spur to participation and democratization of the process.  That's why I recommended this diary, and urge other WashBlog readers to do so as well.

But I'm not buying that RCV/IRV necessarily relates all that much to the inanity of the blanket primary, I-872, cajun primary, and such.  To me, RCV/IRV has rather little to do with the essential issue raised by Washington's silliness WRT its primary system.  

What has never gotten through to those who like "the old way" is that in the rest of the country (the "real world", some might say) partisan primaries exist solely so that members of Party X can choose the candidate from Party X.  Now, there are many ways to define party "membership" -- in New Hampshire, a registered Independent can change to Party X just long enough to cast a primary ballot, and then revert to Independent before leaving the polling place -- but the key attribute is that the partisan races in which an individual may choose candidates during a primary election are all from Party X.  None of that "Dem in the state House, GOP for SecState, Libertarian for County Council" malarkey that Washingtonians supposedly love.

For the life of me, I can't understand how so many Washingtonians fail to comprehend such a simple concept.  

Nor do I see any necessary connection between partisan primary elections and RCV/IRV.  But perhaps I can be edified in the comments and discussion of Krist's diary.

You're only young once, but you can be immature forever -- Larry Andersen
Blogging at Peace Tree Farm

by N in Seattle on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 05:20:09 PM PST

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I agree that RCV/IRV is a good option and where it has been used, such as in San Franciso, it has already shown that it increases participation and saves millions of dollars over more 'tradtional' ways we have been voting.

That said, I'm on a variety of WA political discussion lists and, every time RCV/IRV is brought up, a lot of people express concerns about how the ballots will be counted electronically and some have suggested there could be more room for error. In addition, I've heard concerns about how a manual recount, if ever needed, would be handled with RCV/IRV ballots.  I would be interested in hearing your comments about these concerns.

by Cherisse on Sat Feb 25, 2006 at 09:15:33 PM PST

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Do you have a draft of a RCV/IRV resolution to share with us that we can take to our precinct caucuses this Saturday?  Thanks.

by Cherisse on Wed Mar 01, 2006 at 10:14:01 AM PST

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That solution is partisan registration, combined with Instant Runoff Voting.

I'm sure I will flap my arms and fly to the moon before we ever see that in WA, but think about it.

If perception is reality, then the world must be flat and the sun must revolve around it.

by ivan on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 06:04:16 PM PST

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The problem with IRV/RCV in America is that it can't actually fix the problem.  My sense is that the thing making most people unhappy is that there are only two Parties, so they don't get a real choice in the election.  The Two Party System is not the result of some 19th Century electoral finagling that disenfranchised everyone else.  The system grew up before there were Primary elections, or any law that mentioned a "Political Party", and it arose naturally from the fact that we divide every election down to single seats.

The fact that there is only one "winner" in every race is what forces all the "losers" to band together.  Two parties -- in power and out.  As we see so painfully, when one of these groups splits and forms a Third Party, the other group takes over.  Then the divided group has to find what they have in common, and band together again before they can win again.  Or else they fracture off a chunk from the other group and steal some constituency that wasn't well-served by that coalition.  But you can't have three successful Parties -- you can only have one successful Party, plus everyone else.

IRV cannot fix that.  It's simply not possible.  It might make it easier for those fractured constituencies to change sides, by promoting candidates with the "in" label who vary on a single issue.  But it can't make a Third Party effective (without killing one of the other two, as happened when the Republicans replaced the Whigs).  After the shakedown, there will still be one Party of winners, and everyone else.

Remember that Primary Elections were originally instituted to break the power of the Parties.  Yes, Partisan Primaries had that objective.  Now that we've seen how they work out over time, we see they didn't fix the problem.  IRV would be the same way - it might sound attractive now, and change voter behavior for awhile until people (and Parties) learn how to use them to best advantage.  But they can't really change the system, because they don't really address the problem.

The only way to fix the Two Party System, and the voter disenchantment that it brings, is to follow one of the election systems with larger Districts, where each District elects more than one person at a time.  I know that doesn't work for Presidents and Governors, but it works for Legislatures and Councils and Assemblies and Boards.  Creating a system that allows more viable Parties at that level, will create a broader range of visible candidates for the individual offices.

The first thing people do when I suggest this is to tell me how awful Proportional Representation would be.  I agree that Proportional Representation would never work in America, and that's not what I advocate.  My favorite system, at this point, involves Districts with 3-5 seats each.  That's a small enough number to be manageable.  Each voter has the opportunity to cast as many votes as there are seats.  Say we set 3 seat Districts:  each voter has 3 votes, and when the counting is all done the 3 candidates with the most votes get those 3 seats in the Legislature.  In a closely divided District, that's pretty sure to send one candidate from one Party and one from the other, so both groups are represented.  The Legislative Body in question is pretty evenly divided if the State is pretty evenly divided, instead of ending up heavily weighted one way because some Party took 51% of the votes in every District.  

The 3rd seat is the one that's really interesting.  Does it give an edge to one Party?  Or does it go to a genuine Third Party, giving them an actual seat in the Legislature?  That is the only way for Third Parties to earn status as "Real" Parties.  They have to be able to win seats in the Legislature and put their policies in action.  Any system that does not permit a Third Party candidate to win a seat, cannot ultimately lead to a more diverse collection of specific groupings like you imagine.

I also believe (although this is untested) that this system would lead to less pressure to spend megabucks on a campaign.  Why blow your money on a push to win over 51% of the voters, when you can probably be seated with 35%?  It's alright to settle for second place (or even fourth or fifth, depending on the District size).  Cheaper campaigns also means more candidates, from more backgrounds, representing more opinions.  Major candidates might feel less pressure to destroy their opponents for the same reason, although I'm sure some would do it just for fun.  They wouldn't need to kill people for those 240 extra votes, and they would know their nearest competitor was probably going to the Legislature anyway.  The front-runners would also have to bear in mind that they would be likely to need each other's votes in the sessions, if they wanted to make progress on issues of local importance.  There would be less value in Gerrymandering, if shifting a few votes in a 51/49 split would still mean both groups get the same representation they had before.  A Major Party wouldn't feel endangered by running two candidates (or more), if they had enough support to know that at least one of them would finish with enough votes.  Parties that have particularly strong support, like the Democrats here in Ballard, would have no trouble running two or three candidates who would represent different aspects of the Party, and they could all win.  

It's a whole different world under a system like this -- it would be a Real change.

by bobkoerner on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 11:01:55 PM PST

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  • hmmm by N in Seattle, 03/10/2006 09:54:06 AM PST (none / 0)
  • Same Page by knovoselic, 03/11/2006 04:40:35 PM PST (none / 0)
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