The decision to move Washington’s presidential primary up in the national calendar worked exactly as its backers in Olympia hoped. The deadline to return or postmark ballots is Tuesday. That’s early enough in the national process that Washington’s primary now matters a great deal, which gives that lovely feeling of empowerment that tends to raise participation.
But there’s a hitch: not every vote sent in will count toward nominating Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders or another candidate for president, or even be tallied up. As a condition of moving the primary from irrelevant May to consequential March and the Democrats finally junking the caucus system, lawmakers in 2019 required each voter to enroll as Democrat or Republican on the voting envelope to have the ballot counted.
That’s 4.5 million ballots mailed statewide, with public money paying the postage each way.
If a citizen leaves the party declaration blank but sends in the ballot anyway, the ballot gets tossed aside, vote uncounted. As of Monday, more than 58,000 voters’ ballots had ended up in the discard stack for this reason. (My completed ballot is joining them; newspaper ethics preclude aligning with a political party).
Each voter’s party choice gets entered into state records, viewable online to all. That’s great if you’re a political operative looking to laser-target voters. But this is a disservice to unaffiliated voters, and an egregious giveaway of Washington’s resources to two political parties. A state with a proud history of political independence and a nonpartisan top-two primary for other offices ought to have a more inclusive system when it sends out ballots for nominations to the nation’s highest office.
Even in intensely polarizing times, millions of Americans don’t want to take a partisan side publicly. The 42% who identified in last year’s national Gallup poll as “independent” dwarfs each party’s share of the electorate. Back in 2000, the last Washington state presidential primary with unaffiliated ballots, more than 500,000 unaffiliated ballots were cast — a larger total than either party collected.
While parties deserve control in how their nominee is chosen, shutting out the independents — from swing voters to people who can’t take a public stand for personal or professional reasons — makes November electability a matter of guesswork.
Parties should be free to choose that path as desired — but they’re not running this election. Washington’s presidential pick-a-party primary is conducted and paid for by state and county elections officials — i.e., your tax dollars — at no cost to party organizations. Other states that hold primaries give away the process similarly.
That’s not wholly a bad thing. Iowa showed us in February that a state is much better off having the elections professionals count the votes than turning to party caucus organizers to do the math. But presidential primaries aren’t cheap to conduct. Washington taxpayers paid $9 million for the late-in-the-game 2016 version, and the Legislature has authorized $13 million to cover the higher expected cost this year. County elections officials mail out ballots to every registered voter. Every completed and returned ballot ought to be recorded and reported, even if it doesn’t count toward parties’ delegate selection.
Despite a wave of complaints over this year’s new party-declaration requirement, none of lawmakers’ proposed solutions seem terribly practical. For example, Senate Bill 6697 from Sen. Steve O’Ban would make voting an unwieldy three-envelope process — a blank one for mailing the ballot, one for signing the party declaration and one more blank one for ballot secrecy.
Washington, don’t overthink this. It shouldn’t matter what a letter carrier sees on the envelope. The party preference becomes a public record, available to anyone who can download a spreadsheet. The state’s online ballot tracker verifies delivery. It should matter that nearly enough voters to fill CenturyLink Field had their ballots tossed aside for lacking a partisan declaration. So here’s my suggestion: Take the enormous stack of no-party envelopes received by every county elections office in Washington, open them, count up the votes and show us the totals. That’s it.
Parties can be free to disregard the independents’ tally, but the rest of us ought to get all results from an election we’re paying to run.