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Guest Editorial

Washington is stuck with the Montana Primary

DON C. BRUNELL

Growing up outside Butte, there were three things I grew to dislike: Montana's convoluted state income tax, prolonged miners strikes and the state's primary election system.

Thank goodness Washington doesn't have its income tax and my family hasn't had to weather a prolonged work stoppage. But now, Washington has Montana's primary election system.

Until this year, Washington voters took part in an "open primary," where they could vote across party lines for the candidates of their choice. But the courts threw out that system last year.

So, with no chance to reinstate the open primary, the Legislature passed a "Cajun primary" like the one used in Louisiana, where the top two vote getters advance to the general election. As a back-up, they passed the Montana prototype, to make sure Washington had a primary system this fall.

Gov. Locke vetoed the Louisiana system and left us with the Montana primary.

The political parties fought for the change on the grounds that the primary is for members of a party to select the party's candidate. They love our new system because it forces voters to select a Democrat, Libertarian or Republican ballot - and that makes it easier to develop target voter lists for fund-raising and campaign literature.

While they claim it won't label voters as being of one party or another, that's exactly what happened in Montana. Here's how it worked: even though Butte was controlled by the Democrats, there was a shell of a Republican Party. In rural eastern Montana, it was just the opposite.

My dad was treasurer of the Democrat Party in Silver Bow County, in charge of lining up poll watchers. Each party had their people at the polls to make sure there was no political skullduggery and to find out whether the people they knew were voting Democrat or Republican.

How did they know? Because they could see which party's ballot voters took into the polling booth. So, word spread around Butte who the Republicans were and in eastern Montana who the Democrats were-and it could be most uncomfortable for those who were in the minority.

In fact, later in life when I worked for a Republican congressman from western Montana, I spoke to the Republican Women's Club in Butte-a handful of brave souls-including my high school civics teacher. She stayed after and said, "I hope your dad won't hold it against me that I came to hear you speak."

I told her that Dad didn't hold it against the priest at St. Mary's Church because he would always request the lone Republican ballot in the precinct. I'm not sure he was a true Republican or just liked to tweak my father.

Fortunately, my father was a very understanding and tolerant man, and if the truth were known, he didn't like the Montana primary system either. He called the teacher and told her he admired her courage for standing up for her convictions and that at least a few people turned out to hear his son explain why Richard Nixon's boys broke into the Watergate Hotel.

In November, Washington voters will have a chance to change the current primary. The Washington State Grange has qualified Initiative 872, which would allow voters to cross party lines and select the top two candidates for the general election. It will be different than the old open primary because the top two can be from the same political party.

So rather than taking out your frustration on Secretary of State Sam Reed, make your preference known in November.

Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.

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