Across the state, in Olympia, there is one issue that the legislature hasn't dealt with for 70 years. In 1934 the Washington State Grange sponsored an initiative to the Legislature allowing an open system of voting for candidates in the primaries. Because it was obvious that if presented to the people it would win, it was adopted by the legislature in 1935. It was challenged by the political parties in 1936, but has been our state's primary law ever since.
Since it is evident from polls and emails that voters do not want a change, why is it coming to the Legislature this year? I asked our State's chief election officer, Secretary of State Sam Reed, that question.
Sam was in his office having his morning cup of coffee from his WSU Cougar cup, but he was ready for my questions. Remember, he said, that many of the people who first came to our state were getting away from political systems that repressed them. Some of them came from Europe and Asia, where there were kings or dictators. Some of them came from the eastern and mid-western parts of our country, where their were "city bosses" or organized groups that controlled the voters. The individual was not important and their vote could be denied.
These settlers wrote our State Constitution, purposely putting in a grassroots system allowing government to be by the people and for the people. That's why we have many elected officials, the initiative and referendum laws, and our open voting system that other states do not have.
In the early 1990's, a call came to the previous Secretary of State, Ralph Munro, from California, asking about our primary. When presented to the California voters, over 70 percent of them approved it. The political parties in California sued because according to California election laws, the nominee is the standard-bearer of the party. The party lawyers argued that California couldn't interfere with a private association. Their suit was finally upheld in July of 2000.
Our Secretary of State knew this could have an impact on our law, so he reluctantly agreed that if Washington could run their blanket primary yet in the fall of 2000, he would work on a change. He wanted that change to be as close to the blanket primary as possible.
Enter a new Secretary of State. In the 2001 session Sam Reed went to the Senate and House party caucuses to discuss possible changes, but very few in either caucus wanted anything other than our own blanket primary. If they vote one way, they would offend the party, but voting the other way would offend the people. So Sam and his staff investigated all the primary laws in other states. They found two options more like ours than others and called them by the states where they are used.
The Louisiana system has no party registration, no party ballots, but the top two vote getters regardless of party advance to the general election. The Montana system has no party registration, but the voter must pick one party's ballot on which to vote. There is no record kept of which ballot the voter chose.
The implications are obvious. There would be changes to election outcomes in either method.
The Montana method precludes cross-over voting or voting for an outstanding person of another party. Choice of ballot might occur because of a high-profile race and the other races would either have to get that vote or the voter wouldn't vote at all for those races. Only hard-core party voters would be happy with this system, which in our state is only about 30 percent of the voters. It is discerning then that moderates in both parties may not want to vote.
The advantage of the Louisiana system is that people are still completely free to vote for the person of choice. However, the Louisiana or Cajun primary in some areas of our state might not really be a primary as we think of it. If two people of the same party advance to the general election, the parties would have to split their time and money, or would cause trouble in the ranks by supporting one candidate over the other. In addition, in those parts of the state, a certain number of people who always vote one ticket but who are the minority in that area would be somewhat disenfranchised. The parties do not prefer this system and would instead call for a change in election law to allow them nominating conventions.
The good news in all this is that there is still a chance for us to retain our well-loved system. The Grange is still defending it! The Grange has joined with Sam Reed in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. We hope to hear by Feb. 23 whether or not they will take the case. If they do, Sam Reed will ask for a stay on any proposed changes. We could continue to keep our current primary until the Supreme Court brings their judgment. The Legislature is preparing for both situations. They must have a law ready to pass during this session if the Supreme Court will not hear us. Otherwise, the courts can dictate a primary system to us.
So voters, please let yourselves be heard. Call or email your legislator. How do you vote?
Jerri Honeyford, wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), provides her "Across our state" column to give local constituents her take on the legislative happenings currently underway in Olympia.