The Great Washington Primary Election Battle
Yesterday, the appeal of I-872's (the Top-Two Primary) unconstitutionality was rejected. Yet again, a Federal Court had to explain why "self identification", as a component of an electoral system, is unconstitutional.
This is the latest act in the drama over primary elections in our state.
Let's take at look at where we've been, where we are and where we are headed. (Readers of my web-journal know the details of the story below.)
Act I - In the year 2000, the Jones decision struck down California's Blanket Primary. It is here, very early on in our story, that the US Supreme Court took the opportunity to clearly articulate why a blanket primary, with "self-identification" is unconstitutional. The ruling also states how a non-partisan Blanket Primary, (a ballot with no party designation), is constitutional.
Act II - It's 2003 and Democratic Party of Wash. V. Reed is where Washington's venerable blanket primary system, in place since 1935, is slain.
Act III - 2004. Without a primary system, the Washington Legislature becomes involved.
Recognizing the popularity of the Blanket Primary, Lawmakers begrudgingly pass a similar partisan "Top-Two" Primary bill.
But there is a twist in this scene! The legislators build in an "escape hatch". When Governor Locke rejects the partisan "Top-Two", he effectively institutes a "Pick-A-Party Primary" - the backup system written into the bill in case of such a veto.
Act IV - The Washington State Grange, who lobbied for the vetoed portion of the bill, started to collect signatures for their version of a partisan "Top-Two" primary. I-872 then qualifies for the ballot.
Act V - In September of that year, Washington voters use the Pick-A-Party primary for the first time. Exclusive party ballots are alien to most voters and very unpopular.
Act VI - When comparing the new Pick-A-Party primary to the blanket primary-similar I-872, voters chose the latter in November of 2004 by an almost 60% margin.
Act VII - It's may of 2005 and the overwhelming popularity of I-872 doesn't deter the major political parties. Armed with the Jones and Reed rulings, the Republican's, along with the Democrats and Libertarians, file Wash State Republican Party v. Logan -hoping to defeat the Grange initiative. Even though they are correct in protecting theirs, and all citizens, right of free association, the two major parties are still deemed villains by many voters.
In July of 2005,in less than 60 days, Judge Thomas Zilly of the US District Court, struck down I-872.
Act VIII - The Zilly ruling is appealed by the Washington Grange and the State of Washington.
FairVote - the Center For Voting And Democracy file an amicus brief. The brief explains various ranked choice voting options for the state. All sides in the suit object to the "friendly brief".
The scene closes on August 22, 2006 with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals restating the unconstitutionality of "self-identification" by upholding the Zilly ruling.
The Grange and Washington State lose another fight.
Also in the ruling, the Court says of the FairVote amicus, "...leave to file a brief of amici curiae is granted, but we do not consider issues raised by amici that are beyond those argued by the parties."
The Great Washington Primary Election Battle is not over by any means. The next act in this tale has just started to unfold.
Act IX - We find the major parties delighted with the August 22, 2008 ruling.
Here's what the Seattle Times wrote;
"This means Democrats and all political parties will be able to have a direct voice in choosing their nominees for office," said Dwight Pelz, state Democratic Party chairman. "The state will adapt to the new system and democracy will move forward."
Diane Tebelius, state Republican chairwoman, also cheered the ruling. "The 9th Circuit affirmed the importance of the First Amendment and emphasized that candidates do not have the right to hijack the party name for personal political ambition," she said. "We believe it's a victory for everyone."
Bloodied but unbowed, The Grange tells the same newspaper;
"Now is the time for the voters of this state to unite to take control of elections back from the political parties," state Grange President Terry Hunt said. "The Grange will go forward with the top-two initiative, and follow the court's direction by removing any and all party designations on the ballot."
We find this scene ending with the Grange spurning the major parties and their disregard of the real frustrations felt by the majority of Washington voters. In honor of their 1935 covenant with voters -wide open choices- the Grange vow not to quit the fight.
Act X - Voters are mailed Pick-A-Party ballots in early September 2006. That's when they realize that they're the real losers in this ruling. They'll be presented ballots with few, if any choices, and be asked to "Pick-A-Party"!
Indeed, the voters will pick a party! They will choose to aim their ire at the Republican and Democrats who, even when acting within their constitutional rights, are deemed villains for pushing an unpopular system upon voters.
The stage will be set to blast the parties off the ballot once and for all.
For a short while, there are calls for a non-partisan Blanket Primary in articles, letter to the editor and other opinion outlets. However, the November mid-term elections and the following holidays will temporarily put the issue to rest.
Act XI - It's January 2007. The Legislature convenes and a non-partisan Blanket Primary bill is introduced, Lawmakers will come down from the wings to recite the lines written below.
It is here we find the heart to this scene of our story - the soul-searching debate over a non-partisan political system for our whole state.
Let us look to our script; the August 22, 2006 ruling issued by the Court of Appeals.
Some players, the Would-Be Reformers, will recite these lines;
"Finally, we may observe that even if all these state interests were compelling ones..... Respondents could protect them all by resorting to a nonpartisan blanket primary. Generally speaking, under such a system, the State determines what qualifications it requires for a candidate to have a place on the primary ballot-which may include nomination by established parties and voter-petition requirements for independent candidates. Each voter, regardless of party affiliation, may then vote for any candidate, and the top two vote getters (or however many the State prescribes) then move on to the general election. This system has all the characteristics of the partisan blanket primary, save the constitutionally crucial one: Primary voters are not choosing a party's nominee. Under a nonpartisan blanket primary, a State may ensure more choice, greater participation, increased "privacy," and a sense of "fairness"-all without severely burdening a political party's First Amendment right of association".
For other actors in our tale, the Defenders of the Status Quo, the script will read;
"It (party affiliation) represents an expression of partisanship and occupies a privileged position as the only information about the candidates (apart from their names) that appears on the primary ballot.
"party labels provide a shorthand designation of the views of party candidates on matters of public concern..."
"[v]oting studies conducted since 1940 indicated that party identification is the single most important influence on political opinions and voting. . . . [T]he tendency to vote according to party loyalty increases as the voter moves down the ballot to lesser known candidates seeking lesser known offices at the state and local level.
"Thus voters are afforded a `voting cue' on the ballot in the form of a party label which research indicates is the most significant determinant of voting behavior."
Many an editorial and opinion will juggle the merits of the words above. This supposed dichotomy, between free association and wider ballot choices -if only in the primary-, will be pondered.
The crescendo of this rhetorical struggle takes place in the marbled halls of Olympia.
Being an epic scene, there are all kinds of twists and turns.
We watch as the non-partisan Blanket Primary bill battles its way through committee after committee.
We're gripped wondering if the bill will make it to the floor of a respective chamber?
And if it does - what will our cast do? Will they throw themselves on the sword and approve the bill - if only for the voters who despise the Pick-A-Party system? Will they wash their hands by means of a referendum to the people? And who will vote against the non-partisan primary - when such an act could mean voting with the perceived villains and their Pick-A-Party primary?
All the while, something will hang heavy in the air. Like the Democratic and Republican political organizations, the Grange will be on hand in Olympia. We'll watch as Grangers first try the less-expensive legislative route. The Grange will play on the full capital of their successful I-872 effort. If the Legislature fails to open up choices on the primary ballot, get ready for Son of I-872; a similar system as presented to voters in 2004 - except in non-partisan (i.e. Constitutional) form.
And the suspense will keep building because we see what's on the horizon- A WHOLESALE CHANGE OF THE WASHINGTON STATE POLITICAL SYSTEM. Joining only Nebraska, Washington too could have -non-partisan legislature.
Act XI - We find ourselves at the endgame of our saga.
Either the unpopular and flaccid Pick-A-Party primary stands (unlikely), or we take the party designation off the ballot to have only two candidates on the ballot each November.
The current primary system is obviously broken and we already have non-partisan elections in many municipalities. Either way, there are no new ideas on the table. It's not hard to see that, like a tragic opera, our story is doomed to endure continued heartbreak and frustration.
In the endgame, we can only ask ourselves, is this the best that democracy can get?
Considering the crisis we're in, and the gravity of impending wholesale change, let's look at ALL the options.
This is why Pierce County's Amendment 3, the Instant Runoff Voting IRV effort for its county elections, is important. It speaks to all of the issues regarding Washington's primary election woes and stands strong as an actual solution.
It's important now because we need a local, functioning IRV system to gain traction towards comprehensive statewide reforms.
The status quo offers a false dichotomy. I believe we can have free association and the wide-open choices of the blanket primary - all in one efficient election. And there are many more benefits to IRV.
Indeed, there is conflict over electoral systems in our state. I've tried to forecast where the current saga is headed. If you recognize the benefits of IRV, you'll see that it's not only a lifeline to political associations; it really gives voters the most choices.
Amendment 3, which proposes IRV, is important because it is a lifeline to our democracy itself.
Krist Novoselic 8-23-06