Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Top Two: Bad for voter choice, bad for grassroots politics

In just a few weeks, we'll be two months away from our second-ever August primary election, which, for the first time in four years, won't be a clean open primary, but will instead be the first act in what is now a two part general election.

Secretary of State Sam Reed, the state Grange, and their allies take such a dim view of political parties that they came up with a system that tries to pretend parties are nothing but labels. It's a system that isn't even a true primary election at all. They sold it to the Legislature in 2004 as a replacement for the old unconstitutional blanket primary, and the Legislature, not certain that it would pass constitutional muster, passed it into law with a designated backup - an open primary similiar to what Montana uses, and a real primary election.

In one of his finest acts as Governor, Gary Locke vetoed out the "Top Two" language in the law, giving Washington State an open primary which we have used ever since, even after the passage of Initiative 872, which was challenged in court.

That is, until the U.S. Supreme Court mistakenly allowed I-872 to be reinstated.

Primary ballots aren't even in the mail yet, but already, "Top Two" is causing headaches for candidates, grassroots party leaders, and campaigns.

The state Democratic Party, gamely fighting to ensure that there will be somebody carrying the party's banner in each race in the fall, has told its legislative district organizations to hold nominating conventions to select legislative candidates to officially represent the party.

In some districts, like the 45th and the 48th, which cover Redmond (NPI's hometown) this hasn't been a problem, because the incumbent legislators are all Democrats. But in a few Seattle LDs, where there are several vacancies due to retirements of Democrats, it hasn't been smooth sailing.

While the 33rd picked its former chair, Tina Shamsheldin, as the Democratic nominee for one of the district's two House seats, the 46th had an extremely close contest between Scott White and Gerry Pollet.

The final tally ended up being a difference of three weighted votes, and when the meeting ending, Pollet was the winner.

But then....
Dean Fournier, a White supporter who took the ballot boxes home with him recounted the ballots on his own—and found, according to an email from Fournier to Valdez, an extra ballot that put White in the lead. Thus ensued the lengthy debate about which candidate was the true winner in the close and bizarre nominating battle.
The dispute has apparently been settled under terms drawn up by Chair Javier Valdez, with Pollet agreeing he won't use any language stipulating that he is the official nominee (which rather defeats the point of having a nominating convention) and White agreeing not to challenge the results of the nominating convention. The two candidates are likely to be dual endorsed at the next meeting of the 46th.

Meanwhile, the 36th Legislative District has refused to even hold a nominating convention. The two Democrats running there are John Burbank and Reuven Carlyle. Its leaders, who aren't giving their district's precinct committee officers much credit, argue that having only PCOs pick the nominee isn't democratic.

Says Vice Chair Janis Traven:
We have two candidates, both of whom are good Democrats... We have a very robust endorsement process in our district, and I think we're just going to go ahead with that.
The 36th's Democratic leaders also bizarrely claim that holding a nominating convention would somehow disenfranchise the eighteen thousand people who participated in the precinct caucuses in February.

But this doesn't make any sense. First, in Washington State, the presidential nominating system is seperate from everything else on the ballot. Attendees of the presidential caucuses only came to cast a vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, and maybe to submit resolutions. That was the point.

Second, if these guys are going to make the argument that nominating conventions exclude people, then they should be saying the same about caucuses.

If the goal is simply to get as many people to participate as possible (albeit passively) then why use the caucus at all? The Democratic Party could have opted to use Sam Reed's presidential primary. It didn't, and I didn't hear Janis Traven complaining about the decision to hold caucuses.

Because the 36th District Democrats have refused to pick a nominee, State Chairman Dwight Pelz has stepped in and done so...himself. Pelz picked his friend John Burbank as the party's standard bearer, but is still hoping that the 36th's PCOs will step in and nominate a candidate.

What a mess.

We've now got distracted legislative district organizations and top party officials playing the role of referree between competitive Democratic candidates. This is wrong. Democratic voters should be picking the nominees.

The choice belongs to the people of our party. It's too expensive to hold special caucuses in every jurisdiction every year. And they don't attract the numbers that a presidential caucus does. That is why we really need the open primary.

We Democrats should have the right to nominate our own candidates, and in lieu of a proper primary, nominating conventions are indeed necessary to ensure that we have a standard bearer for the fall. Otherwise, how can we as a party unite behind one person and work to elect him or her to office?

Thanks to Sam Reed and the Grange, Democratic voters no longer have the right to nominate our party's candidates. Neither do Republican voters.

And this is just the beginning. In August, there will undoubtedly be at least a dozen races where candidates of only one party go forward to November. It could even happen in a statewide race. That will mean most candidates will be eliminated from the ballot before the end of summer.

Candidates are understandably upset:
The whole debacle, White adds, speaks to the problem with the top-two primary, which the Democrats are continuing to fight in court. "It’s created a lot of confusion at the grassroots," White says. "This [process] is exactly why the Democrats have been so frustrated."
And soon, many voters will be, too.

Remember, Washington State has never used the "Top Two" primary before. What voters are used to is the old unconstitutional blanket primary, which did not restrict voters to choosing between candidates of only one party. That's what most people likely thought they were getting back when they voted for Initiative 872.

The blanket primary sent on the top vote getter from each party to the general election. But "Top Two" isn't the blanket primary. It's a scheme that has turned the primary election into the first act of a general election.

This is bad for democracy because more Washingtonians turn out to participate in the general election than any other election or political event. A lot more.

And this November, instead of seeing a ballot featuring choices between a multitude of candidates representing many different viewpoints, voters will see ballots with only two choices in every race.

So instead of something like this:
  • John Doe, Democrat
  • Jane Smith, Republican
  • Jacob West, Green
  • Amy Ferguson, Libertarian
  • Arnold Williamson, Independent
...they'll see:
  • John Doe, Prefers Democratic Party
  • Jane Smith, Prefers Republican Party
...or, worse, they'll see (especially in Seattle):
  • John Doe, Prefers Democratic Party
  • Linda Sherman, Prefers Democratic Party
Or vice versa in places like Eastern Washington, where Republicans dominate.

Voters whose own views won't be reflected on the general election ballot will be disenfranchised. They'll either be forced to choose between two candidates they may not like at all, or they'll have to abstain.

We think many voters are going to be pretty unhappy when they open up their general election ballots and realize there's only two choices in all the races. Especially those Washingtonians who forget or aren't enthused enough to vote in August. Libertarians and Greens will probably be angrier than most because they are unlikely to have any candidates on the general election ballot.

Sam Reed and his cohorts at the Grange forget that the very purpose of having a primary election, facilitated by the government, is to empower the loyal voters of a particular political party to have a voice in the selection of the nominee. It's about broadening grassroots political participation. It's about encouraging freedom of assembly - a First Amendment right!

There is a simple solution that will take care of this mess, one that will relieve precinct committee officers and party delegates of the duty of nominating candidates, keep power in the hands of the grassroots instead of the party chairs', ensure voters have plenty of choices in the general election, and protect the First Amendment rights of every Washingtonian - including those who choose to belong to a party.

That solution is to restore the open primary and do away with the horriby misguided Top Two - permanently.


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