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Reforms still needed to make presidential primary usable by both major parties in WA

We still have a few more days to go before the 2018 midterm election is certified (and recounts in several legislative races slated to begin), but that’s not stopping Secretary of State Kim Wyman or her fans at the Seattle Times editorial board from turning their attention to the forthcoming 2019 legislative session.

“Washington voters deserve to have their voices heard loud and clear during the 2020 presidential election cycle. That means moving the date of Washington state’s presidential primary election to earlier in the year — and for the state Democratic Party to start using the results,” the Times declared in an editorial this morning.

NPI agrees that the default date of the presidential primary ought to be moved up to March, and that the Washington State Democratic Party ought to adopt a Delegate Selection and Affirmative Action Plan (known as a DSAAP for short) that utilizes the presidential primary for the purposes of delegate allocation.

However, before that can happen, a key change needs to be made to the state’s existing presidential primary law so that it becomes usable by both major parties.

Full disclosure: I serve on the Washington State Democratic Central Committee as a voting member, and I co-chair the party’s Advocacy Committee, responsible for drafting and championing its legislative priorities.

The Times and Wyman seem wholly fixated on getting the default date moved up. While it would be nice to have an earlier default date for the election, the reality is that existing law already allows the date to be moved up if officials from both parties agree. The current default date isn’t what is standing in the way of the Democratic Party’s potential usage of the presidential primary.

Rather, it’s language in RCW 29A.56.030 that gives Wyman the power to add a name to either of the party’s ballots in her sole discretion.

Here’s the first two provisions from that RCW:

The name of any candidate for a major political party nomination for president of the United States shall be printed on the presidential preference primary ballot of a major political party only:

(1) By direction of the secretary of state, who in the secretary’s sole discretion has determined that the candidate’s candidacy is generally advocated or is recognized in national news media;

This provision needs to be amended by the Legislature to require Wyman to consult with the major parties prior to adding a name to their ballots, and giving the parties an opportunity to object to any candidate’s inclusion. Without such a change, the parties could be deprived of their First Amendment rights of free assembly.

For example, Wyman could decide — in her “sole discretion” — to put a candidate like Lyndon LaRouche on the Democratic ballot, citing coverage of his candidacy by the “national news media”. There would be nothing the Democratic Party could do about that. Wyman could do the same thing to the Republicans as well, but since she is a Republican herself, the Washington State Republicans probably aren’t worried about her adding a name to their ballot that they don’t approve of.

The Republicans cannot, however, assume that the Secretary of State will always be a Republican who will a friend to them. It is thus in their interest as well for this RCW to be amended. It will ensure that our presidential primary is compliant with the First Amendment, and respectful of their rights as well as the Democrats’ rights.

The Democratic National Committee is unlikely to authorize the Washington State Democratic Party to use the state’s presidential primary statute if this change isn’t made, even if the state party wanted to. So if Wyman and the Times want the Democratic Party to use the results of the primary, they should back this reform.

They should also abandon the idea of giving Wyman the power to move the date of her own accord. The current statute appropriately requires consultation with the parties regarding the date, and that arrangement must be preserved.

The exact timing of a nominating event can significantly affect how many delegates a state gets on the Democratic side. It is therefore imperative, from the Democratic Party’s part of view, that Wyman not be allowed to move the date of her own accord, even if it’s just a change of a week or two.

The Legislature should also tighten up RCW 29A.56.040 and RCW 29A.56.050 to ensure that elections officials are only including votes properly cast by a voter wishing to affiliate with the Democratic or Republican parties prior to conveying the presidential primary returns to the parties.

RCW 29A.56.040 could be amended as follows:

(3) Each party’s ballot or portion of the ballot must list alphabetically the names of all qualified candidates for that party’s nomination for the office of president and no other names. The ballot must clearly indicate the political party of each candidate. ((Each ballot must include a blank space to allow the voter to write in the name of any other candidate.))

And RCW 29A.56.050 could be amended as follows:

(2) If requested by a major political party, the secretary of state shall adopt rules under RCW 29A.04.620 to provide for any declaration required by that party and to provide that votes cast for that party’s candidates will only be counted if cast by a voter subscribing to that party’s declaration and no other.

These changes, coupled with reform of RCW 29A.56.030, should provide sufficient assurance to the parties that the presidential primary will be safe to use.

The Democratic Party’s basic requirements for use of a presidential primary, as explained by DNC Member David McDonald during a joint work session of the House and Senate State Government Committees, are as follows:

  • Limited to voters affiliated with the Democratic Party or unaffiliated with any Party but wishing to publicly affiliate with the Democratic Party
  • Assurance by early 2019 that primary is available
  • Candidates on the ballot are limited to bona fide Democrats
  • Votes must be recorded and subject to verification and recount
  • No contemporaneous beauty contests or straw polls

Lastly, a few words about the use of caucuses.

Today’s Seattle Times editorial states:

An earlier and more relevant primary should make it easier for the state Democratic Party to dump its outdated caucus system, which it has used in the past to allocate delegates to presidential candidates.

Caucuses are neither outdated nor antiquated. It is important to understand that the Washington State Democratic Party is not going to dump them, even if it begins using a presidential primary for delegate allocation.

Why? Because the party still has to decide who goes to the state and national conventions in support of each candidate — and caucuses are by far the best way to do that. The alternative is letting the presidential campaigns do the selecting, which would likely mean someone on the other coast drawing up lists of names.

I’m totally opposed to that.

Even in this hyperconnected era, face-to-face interaction — sometimes referred to as good old fashioned retail politics — remains the best way of getting out the vote and discussing the issues. A caucus is simply a party meeting with a special purpose. There is nothing “outdated” about people getting together in person to decide who should represent them at the next level in presidential nominating processes.

To put it another way: Party caucuses are no more “outdated” than CityClub backed debates or Ignite Education Lab events organized by The Seattle Times.

If the Washington State Democratic Party starts using a presidential primary, caucuses will not go away. This is what you can expect to happen instead:

First: The party will encourage candidates to come to Washington State and compete for votes ahead of the presidential primary. Voters will likewise be encouraged to vote the Democratic ballot that comes in their mail.

Second: The election will be held. Once the votes are counted, the party will know how many delegates to allocate to each candidate that competed.

Candidates that have dropped out or receive very little support may not qualify to receive any delegates. The Democratic Party uses proportional representation exclusively — there are no “winner take all” states — so the delegates will almost certainly be divided by two, three, or more candidates.

Third: The party will hold caucuses, most likely beginning at the legislative district level, to select delegates to the congressional district and state level. Subcaucuses consisting of the supporters of each of the different presidential campaigns will meet and decide who should represent them. How many delegates each candidate gets will have been determined by their share of the vote in the presidential primary. At these caucuses there will also be opportunities to adopt a platform and resolutions, and to hear from Democratic candidates running for state/local office.

Fourth: The party will then hold a second round of caucuses at the congressional district level. At these caucuses, the initial pledged delegates from Washington State to the Democratic National Convention will be selected, again using the allocation determined by the results of the presidential primary.

Fifth: The party will select its final pledged delegates at the 2020 State Convention in Tacoma. These delegates will join those elected at the congressional level plus the state’s automatic delegates at the Democratic National Convention in July 2020.

The exact process, including all the steps and the dates associated with those steps, will be determined by the Delegate Selection and Affirmative Action Plan (DSAAP). The state party must write a draft DSAAP and submit it to the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee for approval by midway through next spring. Should the DNC approve this plan, it will then become effective.

As David McDonald has stated, the DNC is encouraging states to make use of presidential primaries for 2020, but only if the party’s requirements are met.

We urge the Legislature and Governor Inslee to act quickly in 2019 to approve a presidential primary reform bill that makes the primary usable by both major parties. This will enable people who simply want to influence the parties’ presidential nominating process to cast a vote without having to show up at a caucus.

Those who wish to run for delegate and participate in partybuilding activities — at least on the Democratic side — will still be able to exercise that freedom.


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