A primer on new primary ballots

While the major parties have waited 70 years for a change to the state primary, many voters abhor the new system before they’ve even voted under it, or don’t know it changed.

And more head-scratching and foot stomping could be on the way if a new initiative revamps the primary yet again.

Focus groups in July showed that 80 percent of the state’s voters didn’t know the Sept. 14 primary ballot will be much different this year, said Kitsap County Auditor Karen Flynn.

“For the people of Washington, this primary will be a dramatic change,” Flynn said.

Federal courts declared the state’s blanket primary unconstitutional for allowing voters to cross party lines. Gov. Gary Locke then signed into law a “closed primary” system requiring voters to select a single party’s ballot in primary elections.

The state has spent almost $2 million to publicize the new system, but it’s unclear how many have caught on. Many others, who are aware of the changes, aren’t happy.

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed has received hundreds of angry e-mails, according to news reports. Some call the new primary “un-democratic” and said they intend to boycott the election. One voter called the changes an “obscenely greedy attempt to grab power.”

Flynn urged voters not to throw their vote away in protest.

“People in Washington are independent-minded and have never been asked to do something like this before,” she said. “But there are better ways to protest. Please don’t fail to vote properly.”

How it works

The new ballot will require voters to first designate a party affiliation. They can choose from Democrat, Libertarian or Republican.

The voter then marks candidates in the color-coded section of the ballot designated for their party.

Non-partisan races and ballot measures – such as two Bainbridge parks funding measures, which will appear on the Sept. 14 primary ballot – are listed at the end of the ballot and do not require party affiliation.

Marking the top of the ballot with a party preference is key to making your vote count, Flynn said.

If, for example, a voter choses Libertarian affiliation but votes in Republican and Libertarian races, only the Libertarian votes will count.

Leaving the party affiliation slot blank will invalidate party choices, but will not disqualify votes in non-partisan races.

Kitsap County spent almost $600,000 on the new primary, Flynn said. The costs would have been higher if four ballots – three for the parties and one for non-partisan races – were issued to each voter. In that scenario, Kitsap voters would have chosen one partisan ballot and tossed out the remaining two.

Thurston County will use the four-ballot system in the hopes of making the voting process clear and easy. Kitsap county opted for the one-ballot system to save paper and remain consistent with neighboring systems in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties, where most of the state’s residents reside.

Local Democrats and Republicans say the changes to the primary are worth it.

“The new primary is good for the state,” said Shirley Brown, Kitsap County Republican Party chairwoman. “The blanket primary was controlled by special interests.”

The new primary allows parties to choose their own candidates without outside interference, agreed Kitsap County Democratic Party Chairwoman Sharon Peterson.

“We get to choose for ourselves, rather than other parties,” she said. “You can’t have someone coming in and voting for your (party’s) worst candidate.”

Organized opposition to the new primary has already gained approval for a November ballot measure that would change the primary yet again.

Initiative 872 would establish a “top two” primary system that advances the two top vote-getters to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

The Washington State Grange, a grassroots, rural-interests organization, collected more than 305,000 signatures backing the plan.

The Grange spearheaded a similar initiative drive in 1935 that established the state’s blanket primary.

“I’ve always voted for the person, not the party,” said Bainbridge Island Grange member Alice Magnusson. “The new primary is dreadful. It is taking a freedom away that I always had.”

Magnusson joined Grangers from around the county to gather signatures at Kitsap Mall, spending three days promoting the initiative and registering voters.

Many young people of voting age were keenly interested in the initiative, telling her they don’t regularly vote because most elections offer little choice.

“We’re getting less and less freedoms, and young people are giving up on voting,” she said. “The people should vote on this, rather than letting Olympia decide.”

Democrats, Republicans and some independents say I-872 is a poor alternative. They say the “Top Two” or “Cajun” primary unfairly favors incumbents and limits choices in the general election.

“It’s obviously exclusionary,” said Mark Wilson, a Suquamish resident and Green Party candidate running against Democratic Party incumbent Patty Murray for a U.S. Senate seat. “It makes it much more difficult for third-parties or independents to participate.”

Peterson said similar primaries have been ineffective.

“Only one state does it that way – Louisiana,” she said. “Louisiana, and the Cajun Primary, has produced such people as David Duke. It’s not such a good way to do things.”

Today is the last day to register to vote in the September primary except for in-person registration at the county courthouse in Port Orchard or at the auditor’s table at the Kitsap County Fair, Aug. 25-29.

Mail-in registration must be postmarked today.

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