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.
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.
“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.