Party ballot declarations
The party declarations on Washington State's 2020 presidential primary ballot (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

At the end of last week, bal­lots for Wash­ing­ton State’s 2020 pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry began land­ing in the mail­box­es of the state’s four and half mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers. The pri­ma­ry — which will be uti­lized by both the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can par­ties for nation­al con­ven­tion del­e­gate allo­ca­tion pur­pos­es for the first time in state his­to­ry — will run until March 10th, the dead­line to return ballots.

As in the past, the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry con­sists of two bal­lots: a Demo­c­ra­t­ic bal­lot and a Repub­li­can bal­lot. They both appear on the same piece of paper.

Vot­ers may vote either bal­lot, but for their vote to count, they must affirm a dec­la­ra­tion that appears on the return bal­lot envelope.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic dec­la­ra­tion states:

I declare that my par­ty pref­er­ence is the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and I will not par­tic­i­pate in the nom­i­na­tion process of any oth­er polit­i­cal par­ty for the 2020 Pres­i­den­tial election.

The Repub­li­can dec­la­ra­tion states:

I declare that I am a Repub­li­can and I have not par­tic­i­pat­ed and will not par­tic­i­pate in the 2020 precinct cau­cus or con­ven­tion sys­tem of any oth­er party.

Party ballot declarations
The par­ty dec­la­ra­tions on Wash­ing­ton State’s 2020 pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry bal­lot (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

If you’re won­der­ing why these oaths are there, the answer is pret­ty sim­ple: the par­ties want you to under­stand that when you vote their pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry bal­lot, you are choos­ing to affil­i­ate with them and par­tic­i­pate in par­ty politics.

Although it is some­times called an elec­tion, the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry is not an elec­tion at all because no one is being elect­ed. It is pure­ly a nom­i­nat­ing exer­cise. The major par­ties will use the results to deter­mine how many del­e­gates to allo­cate to each can­di­date com­pet­ing for their par­ty’s pres­i­den­tial nomination.

Wash­ing­ton State, as a mat­ter of pub­lic pol­i­cy, has opt­ed to hold a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry every four years and encour­ages the par­ties to use the results to allo­cate their del­e­gates instead of rely­ing on cau­cus­es, which are not as inclusive.

Wash­ing­ton does­n’t have par­ty vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, so it would not be pos­si­ble for the state to restrict par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pri­ma­ry to vot­ers who are reg­is­tered as Democ­rats or Repub­li­cans, even if the par­ties want­ed the state to do this.

In lieu of this, state law affords the par­ties the oppor­tu­ni­ty to require that vot­ers be pre­sent­ed with a manda­to­ry state­ment of par­tic­i­pa­tion that they must affir­ma­tive­ly con­sent to in order for their vote to influ­ence the nomination.

The lan­guage of the oaths that you see was sup­plied by the par­ties and it is required to be includ­ed under state law at the par­ties’ request.

The dec­la­ra­tions are in a sense as much for the vot­ers’ pro­tec­tion as for the par­ties’ ben­e­fit. But many peo­ple don’t see it that way.

Elec­tions offi­cials say that every four years, they get phone calls, let­ters, and emails from a con­tin­gent of vot­ers grum­bling about the oaths.

As Repub­li­can Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman put it: “Every time we do this, peo­ple have a very vis­cer­al, angry reac­tion to hav­ing to pub­licly declare.”

For­tu­nate­ly, there’s a sim­ple solu­tion for those Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who don’t want to pub­licly declare a par­ty pref­er­ence: Don’t return a bal­lot.

Since the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry is a nom­i­nat­ing exer­cise, not an elec­tion, your vot­ing record will be unaf­fect­ed if you choose not to participate.

In fact, in past years, that is what most Wash­ing­to­ni­ans have done. Turnout in the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry has nev­er exceed­ed fifty per­cent before.

Wyman, how­ev­er, is bet­ting that turnout this year will sur­pass fifty percent.

We think that pre­dic­tion is awful­ly rosy. Our guess, based on past turnouts, is that turnout will be clos­er to forty per­cent. And that num­ber — forty per­cent — is actu­al­ly what King Coun­ty Elec­tions is pre­dict­ing for the state’s largest county.

Appear­ing on Dori Mon­son’s show, Wyman declared that she has decid­ed not to return a bal­lot her­self in sol­i­dar­i­ty with irri­tat­ed vot­ers.

“I’m going to actu­al­ly not par­tic­i­pate because the Repub­li­can Par­ty bal­lot has one can­di­date, so I either do a write-in or I pick Don­ald Trump, but either way, I have to actu­al­ly divulge, to a degree, who I’m vot­ing for, to be able to have a secret bal­lot, iron­i­cal­ly,” Wyman said. “In protest, I’m very frus­trat­ed that we don’t have an unaf­fil­i­at­ed option.”

When Wyman says “I’m very frus­trat­ed that we don’t have an unaf­fil­i­at­ed option,” what she means is that she’s upset that the Leg­is­la­ture wise­ly refused to cre­ate a third “straw poll” bal­lot that would appear along­side the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can Par­ty bal­lots. Wyman thinks hav­ing a straw poll bal­lot would be real­ly super duper darn awe­some, because it would sup­pos­ed­ly allow peo­ple to express a pres­i­den­tial pref­er­ence with­out hav­ing to mark a par­ty declaration.

In real­i­ty, though, pre­sent­ing vot­ers with an “unaf­fil­i­at­ed option” would be per­pe­trat­ing a con against the peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton State.

Count­less vot­ers would be wrong­ly led to believe that they could have it both ways (express a pref­er­ence for who should be nom­i­nat­ed with­out hav­ing to affil­i­ate with a par­ty), when in fact that would not be the case… because nei­ther par­ty would use the results of the “straw poll” bal­lot to allo­cate any delegates.

The nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, for its part, has rules explic­it­ly for­bid­ding this sort of duplic­i­ty. State par­ties that want to uti­lize a state-run pri­ma­ry can only select that option if there is no oth­er com­pet­ing bal­lot for vot­ers to choose from. Straw-poll schemes like the one Wyman favors are a non­starter for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

In oth­er words: if Wyman had got­ten her way and the “unaf­fil­i­at­ed bal­lot” option had been includ­ed, what would have hap­pened is that the Wash­ing­ton State Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty would have been forced to use cau­cus­es again for del­e­gate allo­ca­tion in 2020. There would­n’t have been a switch to a pri­ma­ry at all.

Wyman knows this. And yet, she con­tin­ues to pub­licly advo­cate for a scheme that she is aware would cause the Wash­ing­ton State Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to be unable to use the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry in the future (2024, 2028, 2032, etc.)

Wyman has remarked that maybe the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee will alter its rules in future cycles, but there is no like­li­hood of this what­so­ev­er. The DNC is not going to sanc­tion pri­maries that have a com­pet­ing “straw poll” option because the DNC would be endors­ing decep­tion in its own nom­i­nat­ing process if it did so.

Vot­ers jus­ti­fi­ably expect that when they vote a bal­lot, it counts for some­thing. Adop­tion of Wyman’s scheme would entail slap­ping a mean­ing­less pub­lic opin­ion research sur­vey on the bal­lot, right next to the par­ty bal­lots that actu­al­ly count, and thus sanc­tion­ing fraud and decep­tion against vot­ers inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing in the selec­tion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic or Repub­li­can nominees.

A true cham­pi­on of pres­i­den­tial pri­maries — which Wyman claims to be — would not engage in poi­son pill advo­ca­cy like this. A true cham­pi­on of pri­ma­ry adop­tion would instead explain to peo­ple that a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry is a nom­i­nat­ing exer­cise and the par­ties have a First Amend­ment right to free assem­bly and a right to require that the peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing in their pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nat­ing process­es acknowl­edge that by doing so, they’re par­tic­i­pat­ing in par­ty politics.

It is very regret­table that Wyman keeps bring­ing up the con­cept of a “straw poll” bal­lot when she makes these appear­ances on shows like Dori Monson’s.

She did get one impor­tant thing right, and that was to explain that the oaths are there because the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry is a nom­i­nat­ing exercise.

“This is the only time Wash­ing­ton vot­ers have to actu­al­ly declare their par­ty affil­i­a­tion, and that is because they are nom­i­nat­ing the stan­dard-bear­er for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic or Repub­li­can Par­ty, and the par­ties want to be sure that it’s actu­al par­ty mem­bers who are doing it, not just ran­dom peo­ple,” Wyman said.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, she then char­ac­ter­ized the pri­ma­ry as an elec­tion run by the parties:

She added that the pri­ma­ry elec­tion is run by the par­ties, not the state.

This is incor­rect on both counts. As explained above, the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry is not an elec­tion, and it’s not run by the par­ties… rather, it’s a nom­i­nat­ing exer­cise run by the state and coun­ty elec­tions offi­cials on the par­ties’ behalf.

It is total­ly under­stand­able that there are some Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who are not enam­ored with polit­i­cal par­ties and do not wish to par­tic­i­pate in par­ty politics.

If that’s you, and the prospect of affirm­ing a par­tic­i­pa­tion oath both­ers you, then go ahead and recy­cle your pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry bal­lot. Alter­na­tive­ly, you can hold your nose, grit your teeth, and affil­i­ate with a par­ty for a moment in time. Remem­ber, mark­ing the dec­la­ra­tion does­n’t align you with a polit­i­cal par­ty forever.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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4 replies on “Why there are party oaths on Washington’s presidential primary ballot return envelope”

  1. And yet Texas allows vot­ers to vote in either par­ty pri­ma­ry with­out such a dec­la­ra­tion and Texas has no prob­lem with becom­ing a cau­cus state.

    This com­ment has been edit­ed by NPI to com­ply with our Com­ment­ing Guide­lines.

  2. I read that entire excuse for the state exclud­ing every par­ty but two. 

    And as I sug­gest­ed this bal­lot only rec­og­nizes the exis­tence of two par­ties. The infor­ma­tion is then used by the two par­ties and they did not have to pay for this. We did. This is very unfair to the oth­er par­ties because they do not have the state fund­ing their efforts to dis­cov­er how much sup­port their can­di­date has which might help them to choose which of their can­di­dates they want to run for president..

    I did in fact vote for one of the two par­ties can­di­dates, but refused to answer the bal­lot ques­tion. There­fore, my vote will not be counted. 

    The rea­son I sent the bal­lot in is to force the state to phys­i­cal­ly reject my rec­om­men­da­tion for President. 

    The Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties must love all this expense in their behalf. They are laugh­ing all the way to the bank with the mon­ey they saved. Which again gives them an advan­tage fund­ed by the state. Leav­ing these two par­ties more funds to use dur­ing the cam­paign this year.

    Let me shout this out real­ly loud. Bias, bias, bias, and unfair, unfair, unfair. Did you hear me? I am yelling at the state of Wash­ing­ton. I believe in fair, upright, trans­par­ent behav­ior and this is not that.

    This com­ment has been edit­ed to NPI to com­ply with our Com­ment­ing Guide­lines. The use of all caps is not allowed in com­ments.

    1. Nick, while it is true that Wash­ing­ton State only con­ducts a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry on behalf of the major par­ties, the law does not define major par­ties to mean only the Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can parties. 

      Any par­ty can achieve the sta­tus of a major par­ty, and the bar is actu­al­ly not that high. RCW 29A.04.086:

      “Major polit­i­cal par­ty” means a polit­i­cal par­ty whose nom­i­nees for pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent received at least five per­cent of the total vote cast at the last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. A polit­i­cal par­ty qual­i­fy­ing as a major polit­i­cal par­ty under this sec­tion retains such sta­tus until the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion at which the pres­i­den­tial and vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates of that par­ty do not achieve at least five per­cent of the vote.

      So all a minor par­ty needs to do is get five per­cent of the total vote cast and they can become a major par­ty. Becom­ing a major par­ty would then give them the abil­i­ty to sub­mit a list of can­di­dates to the State of Wash­ing­ton who would appear on their own pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry bal­lot. Notice the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry statute does­n’t say any­thing about D’s or R’s, it refers only to major par­ties:

      On the sec­ond Tues­day in March of each year in which a pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States is to be nom­i­nat­ed and elect­ed, a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry shall be held at which vot­ers may vote for the nom­i­nee of a major polit­i­cal par­ty for the office of president.

      With respect to the financ­ing of the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, the tax­pay­ers are foot­ing the bill because they — as a peo­ple — have expressed a desire to par­tic­i­pate in the polit­i­cal par­ties’ process of allo­cat­ing del­e­gates to their respec­tive nation­al con­ven­tions with­out hav­ing to stand in a gym or cafe­te­ria for hours and hours on a Sat­ur­day or Sun­day. The par­ties used to hold cau­cus­es for allo­ca­tion pur­pos­es, at their own expense. Wash­ing­to­ni­ans have made it clear they would rather vote in a pri­ma­ry than go to a cau­cus, and so the state now holds a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry to facil­i­tate ease of par­tic­i­pa­tion in the major par­ties’ nom­i­nat­ing process­es. There is noth­ing unfair or biased about this. Mov­ing to a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry has removed bar­ri­ers to peo­ple get­ting involved in pol­i­tics, and that’s a good thing.

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