Is Washington state's shiny new presidential primary designed to help the people of the state, or the political parties? The answer's where it usually is: In the fine print.

Share story

Everybody’s all excited about our new, earlier presidential primary. It means that little left coast Washington state, ignored in countless elections past, might finally matter in 2020 when the nation is choosing nominees for the top job.

But I’m not joining the celebration, nor do I think I will be able to participate as a voter.

That’s because while the main, advertised point of that election is definitely important — picking presidential nominees — the secondary intent, found in the fine print, couldn’t be more irritating. It’s that it’s a huge data-harvesting exercise for the state political parties.

“I think it’s highway robbery,” former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro told me Tuesday. “They don’t tell you this: That primary will be the biggest mailing list and fundraising list opportunity of the year for the parties, all paid for at taxpayer expense.”

This week state lawmakers voted to hold a primary two months earlier than usual, on March 10, 2020. That means we’ll now be voting before about 30 other states. What’s more, vote-by-mail would replace the gymnasium caucuses of previous elections, which were wildly anti-democratic as they infamously drew less than 6 percent voter turnout.

All that’s the good news. But the bad is that lawmakers, dominated by those on the Democratic side, insisted not only that voters must first affiliate with a party in order to have their votes counted. But also that the record of which party you pick be turned over, along with your name and address, to the parties after the election.

“When you take the Republican ballot or the Democrat ballot, they put you on a list then they start to correspond with you, they send you emails, then they try to raise money from you,” Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, told The Seattle Times. “The taxpayers are paying for a fundraising tool for the political parties.”

It’s like a direct-mail and telemarketing scheme. Only run through the ballot you fill out on your kitchen table.

Munro said that forcing voters to first pick a party, and doing it in a way that puts those choices on a publicly-available list, effectively brands voters as party members even if they don’t want to be. In our notoriously prickly, independent state, these rules alone could depress the turnout by 500,000 to 1 million voters, Munro predicted.

“I learned this the hard way, when I was running elections as Secretary of State,” he said. “People here hate being told they have to sign up for a political party in order to have their vote counted. Many won’t do it. It makes this primary a form of voter suppression.”

The reason you have to pick a party before voting in the presidential primary is solely because that’s the way the party organizations like it. Years ago they sued and won, arguing they were essentially private clubs that had the right to bar nonmembers from making club decisions. As one state lawmaker, Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, put it Monday in defending this setup: “The Boy Scouts don’t get to pick the leader of the Girl Scouts.”

OK but — that’s not a taxpayer-financed election. Also: The entire nation doesn’t have to endure the Girl Scout troop leader for four years. Seems like there’s a key principle being willfully misplaced here … well there it is, hiding right in the Democratic Party’s name!

“Are we helping the political parties in this state, or the people of the state?”

That was the question pointedly asked by Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima. It turns out there are other states, such as Montana and Wisconsin, that do let people vote in presidential nominating contests without later informing the parties which party ballot voters selected. On Monday in Olympia, Corry tried to change our rules to protect voter privacy like those states do — a move that would have at least killed the marketing aspect to all this.

His amendment was voted down. It was done in a voice vote, which conveniently means there’s no record of who voted which way. Ironic, isn’t it — that on a vote to get access to your general voting preferences, they didn’t record a preference themselves.

Oh well. At least we know without a doubt the answer to his question.