Residents willing to fight to vote across party lines
August 13, 2010 · 9:57 AM
Washington residents have shown for decades that they don’t want to be restricted by party in primary elections.
For nearly 70 years people were able to vote across party lines and choose the top candidate. When political parties fought the system and it was overturned in 2004 in favor of a pick-a-party nomination format, residents were incensed, said Secretary of State Elections Director Nick Handy.
“They didn’t like it, and they really let us know that they didn’t like it,” he said. “During pick-a-party they defaced ballots, wrote obscenities on them. They really acted out, they were really rude to election workers.”
Handy said the changes in the primary format didn’t create a noticeable effect on turnout, but it moved voters to seek a new system.
The people immediately went into action. In 2004, voters passed I-872 by a 2-to-1 margin to change the primary to a system where the top two vote-getters move onto the general election, regardless of party. Because of challenges from political parties all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the system wasn’t used until 2008.
Washington features the only primary in the country where voters are allowed to look across the political spectrum and choose the top two candidates from any party to move to November’s general election.
Political parties have long eschewed primary formats that enable voters to choose candidates from any party because it allows members of one party to choose who represents the other.
“The big difference is that in most other states they conduct nominating primary elections, but ours is not a nominating primary,” said Kitsap County Election Manager Dolores Gilmore. “It just whittles down the candidates to two.”
Washington’s top-two primary can lead to circumstances where multiple members of a party are running for a seat in a general election, with no competition from other parties, a circumstance voters have yet to take issue with, Handy said.
“Voters don’t seem to care in the occasional race that they end up with two Democrats or two Republicans,” he said. “As far as voters are concerned, it means they have two good choices in the general election rather than just one lopsided vote from each party.”
Prior to the legal battles earlier this decade, Washington had a “blanket primary,” where voters could choose any candidate, and the top vote-getter from each party advanced.
The blanket primary was originally passed in 1935 and remained the primary process until the parties appealed in 2003. From the system’s inception in the 1930s, political parties fought to overturn it because they felt the candidates should be chosen by the party’s political base, not the general public.
The blanket primary was overturned by the Ninth District Court of Appeals in 2003 because it violated the right of association of the political parties.
Elections up until 2008 forced voters to choose a party and vote only on that side of the ticket in the primary, something Washingtonians didn’t enjoy.
“All during this time, voters were upset with having to pick a party because in the state of Washington we had always done a blanket primary,” Gilmore said.
In the second cycle of the top-two format, Handy said turnout is rising slightly, which he attributes to approval of the system and the ease of mail-in ballots, which became the primary voting method five years ago.
While the people have made it clear how they want their primary to work, it remains unclear how long this system will last before another legal battle ensues.
“This being our second year now, we have no way of knowing whether this is going to end up back in court again,” Gilmore said.
Ballots trickling in
With less than a week remaining until the election, ballots are starting to add up at the Kitsap County Elections Office. On Bainbridge, 4,208 out of the 16,880 ballots issued have been returned (24.9 percent). Countywide, 32,694 of 143,670 have been returned (22.76 percent).
County Elections Manager Dolores Gilmore said these numbers are in line with the overall expectation of 45-50 percent voter turnout for Kitsap County.
“This is exactly where it’s expected to be; we’re right on target,” she said.
For ballots to count, they must be postmarked by election day, Aug. 17.