Washington state’s top-two primary system makes it hard for minor parties to advance to the November elections. But that doesn’t stop them from trying.
OLYMPIA — In a crowded election field, Steven Nielson is banking on some complex math to get him through the August primary.
A Libertarian candidate, Nielson is one of seven people running for the statewide office of public lands commissioner.
If the four Democratic candidates in the race split the vote, Nielson hopes to grab 15 to 17 percent and secure a spot on the general election ballot.
For him, “the strategy for this is shut up, look pretty and try to survive,” said Nielson, a 36-year-old aerospace engineer who lives in Port Orchard.
Calculations like that are part of minor-party candidates’ thinking when it comes to the state’s top-two primary election.
Spurred by dissatisfaction with the 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, voters appear to be taking interest in their third-party options. With Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump drawing unusually high unfavorable ratings, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein have gotten some attention.
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Paul Addis, a Libertarian candidate for lieutenant governor, said he saw the phenomenon while collecting signatures to get Johnson on the ballot in Washington.
“The people that were coming up, when I explained who he was as a third option, they were eager to sign the petition,” said Addis. “I think that it’s definitely caused some people to look our way.”
But with Washington state’s primary system — which pushes the two highest vote-getters to the fall ballot, regardless of party — Addis and Nielson may not be around in November to benefit.
Ballots for the August primary have been mailed out and must be returned in an official drop box or postmarked by Tuesday.
Adopted through Initiative 872 in 2004, the top-two system was implemented in 2008.
One of the results? Minor-party candidates like Libertarians, Socialists or members of the Green Party are often squeezed out of the ballot lineup after the primary.
This year, it’s mostly a problem for Libertarians, who are fielding candidates for most of the statewide elected offices — including lieutenant governor and secretary of state — as well as more than 20 state legislative races.
But the top-two primary is also almost certain to squeeze out Mary Martin, a candidate for governor for the Socialist Workers Party.
“I think that, you know, there should be more choices on the ballot,” said Martin. “It’s very hard for the working-class candidates to get on the ballot.”
Rob Richie of FairVote says Washington’s top-two system has some benefits, but isn’t ideal for allowing voters a wide range of November election choices.
The top-two system allows for contests between members of one party — like the 2014 U.S. congressional contest between Republicans Clint Didier and Dan Newhouse.
Races like that can make sure politicians stay responsive to voters — or risk facing a challenge from their own party, said Richie, executive director of the Maryland-based nonprofit that advocates changes intended to make voting systems more fair.
But when it comes to choices in November, Richie says Louisiana has a better system.
In Louisiana, all candidates on the ballot go to the November election. If the winner doesn’t grab a majority of the November vote, a runoff election ensues between the top two contenders.
FairVote is neutral on the concept of the top-two system. But, “we’re interested in taking it a step further, and have four people go to November,” giving voters more possibilities, Richie said.
The change to the top-two primary forced his party to recruit better candidates and improve messaging, said David Traynor, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Washington.
Traynor points to a Libertarian candidate’s victory last year in a Moses Lake City Council race as a sign that their candidate recruitment and messaging is starting to succeed.
And if they can survive the primary, the top-two system can benefit Libertarians, Traynor said. In that case, rather than just occupying an extra line on the ballot, the minor-party candidate’s existence is amplified.
A situation like that allows such candidates to draw more votes than a traditional third-party candidate might have. For example, Nielson in 2014 challenged House Republican Floor Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm. In that general election, Nielson captured about 28 percent of the vote.
Nielson said third-party candidates shouldn’t despair over the top-two system. And he’s optimistic that the state of the presidential race will boost the fortunes of Libertarian candidates who make it to the November ballot.
“The Gary Johnsons of the world are helping with that,” he said.
When it comes to winning outright, however, third-party candidates still face a steep challenge to claw past Republicans and Democrats. Some Libertarians running for state Legislature this year are one of only two candidates, and will advance to the general election.
But those instances often feature a Libertarian running against an incumbent so strong that they avoided drawing a major-party challenger.
Case in point: Dennis Price, the Libertarian challenging Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle. In the 2012 general election, Hasegawa beat a Republican challenger by nearly 40 percentage points.
Another example: Libertarian candidate Joshua Trumbull. As the only one challenging state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Trumbull is guaranteed a spot on the November ballot. But as of Thursday, Trumbull hadn’t reported raising any money for his campaign. Ferguson, first elected to that office in 2012, has raised nearly $1.2 million.
Other third-party candidates for state House and Senate will have to clear the August primary. Meanwhile, competition for the statewide elected offices is fierce.
Addis recently announced on his website that he’s no longer taking donations for now.
“I don’t want to take anybody’s money at this point, if we don’t get through August,” said Addis, a 49-year-old business analyst for Alaska Airlines.
Addis has raised less than $3,000, according to state records, and he faces 10 other candidates. The long list includes a Republican and a trio of Democratic state senators who all have war chests running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Addis describes mixed feelings about the top-two system. Having a regular slot on the November ballot would guarantee several more months for Libertarian candidates to campaign and meet voters, he argued.
On the other hand, when a Libertarian makes it through the top-two primary now, they don’t have to worry about being called a “spoiler,” an accusation sometimes made against third-party challengers, Addis said.
He points to Nielson’s 2014 race against Wilcox.
“That was something that nobody could say, ‘hey, Steven’s a spoiler,’ ” said Addis.