The 2020 election highlighted the potential harm of letting partisanship run rampant. Washington lawmakers should swiftly reverse their course on two worthy reforms requested by the state’s chief elections officer to moderate the political climate. The deadline for action is Monday.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman proposed bills to make the state’s top election official a nonpartisan office and to allow voters who don’t declare a party still to register their preference in the state’s presidential primary. These reforms should be enacted, not ignored.
Democrats control the Legislature, and thus own the failure, so far, to advance House Bill 1265. It would free voters from having to declare party loyalty to cast a valid presidential primary ballot. But it has not received a committee hearing despite having a bipartisan group of nine sponsors. Rep. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, who chairs the House state government committee, said Wednesday he would not hear a bill that would bring the primary out of alignment with Democratic National Committee rules.
This is a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. Washington pays to run this election, not the parties. This bill would require the state to report totals from presidential primary ballots cast by unaffiliated voters, even though the parties would not use them.
For last year’s election, Washington officials recalibrated the presidential primary to have stronger influence in the national parties’ decisions about their standard-bearers. The Legislature in 2019 rescheduled the primary to March from May to carry more national weight, as Wyman had urged for years. For the first time in 2020, both Republican and Democratic state parties allocated all their delegates based on the presidential primary, abandoning the onerous and unevenly attended caucus system that required hours of voters’ time. Before, the state GOP had allocated half their delegates based on the primary, while the state Democrats never had.
In 2020, nearly half the state’s registered voters cast presidential primary ballots. About 60,000 voters sent in ballots without designating a political party on the back of the envelope. Had those disqualified ballots been accepted, the state would have had a primary turnout above 50%.
Party declarations exist in the presidential primary, in part, to help parties identify supporters in a state without partisan voter registration. Washington shouldn’t provide this service at the cost of shutting out willing voters.
“In a state where you don’t register by party, you can’t participate. It’s not right,” Chelan County Auditor Skip Moore lamented to this editorial board.
The Legislature’s Republicans and Democrats together bear blame for the other Wyman-backed measure’s seemingly imminent demise.
No senator or representative agreed to sponsor Wyman’s bill to make the Secretary of State position a nonpartisan office. This editorial board endorsed that idea when Wyman, a Republican, campaigned on it in 2020.
Responsibility for state elections should be in the hands of someone not beholden to a party. The move would not affect how the office is elected, thanks to the top-two primary system. Other statewide offices — Supreme Court justices and the Superintendent of Public Instruction — are elected without party labeling.
At this late date in the session, a legislator should step up and file this bill. It deserves a hearing and bipartisan support, rather than neglect.
Partisanship is boiling over throughout American governance. These sensible measures deserve support.