A bill marching through the Legislature would bump the state's presidential primary two-and-a-half months earlier, to hopefully let voters weigh in before the nominees become fait accompli.
In 2016, Washington state spent nearly $9 million to conduct a meaningless presidential primary.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump won the state primary in May, but his last rival had already dropped out of the race three weeks earlier.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton won the state primary, but the party had already held caucuses two months earlier, and those caucuses (with about 220,000 participants), not the primary (with more than 800,000 voters), were used to award delegates. Clinton lost the caucuses, which counted, and won the primary, which didn’t.
State lawmakers would like to change that, with a bill marching through the Legislature that would bump the state’s presidential primary two-and-a-half months earlier, to hopefully let voters weigh in before the nominees become fait accompli.
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The bill, SB 5273, which passed the state Senate last month, would move the Washington presidential primary from the fourth Tuesday in May to the second Tuesday in March.
The exact dates for many states’ primaries and caucuses remain in flux, but if the Washington legislation passes, we would be somewhere around the 15th state to vote, likely joining a half-dozen or so other states in the March 10, 2020 election. That would put us one week after “Super Tuesday,” when nine states, including California and Texas, are currently scheduled to hold their primaries.
In a rare instance of agreement, both the Democratic and Republican state parties are on board.
“This is a good move for the people of Washington state,” said state Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich, “to move our primary up so that our state is actually relevant.”
Heimlich said that state delegates to the Republican National Convention will be bound to support the voters’ choice from the state primary.
State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski also supports the change, but passing the bill won’t guarantee a meaningful Democratic primary.
Podlodowski said the primary system that has been used in Washington doesn’t comply with the rules of the Democratic National Committee. Among the problems is that current law doesn’t give the party any say in who appears on the ballot, to determine if they are a “bona fide Democratic candidate,” said David McDonald, the state party’s parliamentarian.
The bill would allow party chairs, not the secretary of state, to choose which candidates appear on the ballot.
“Without this bill we can’t even consider a primary,” Podlodowski said. Still, the 176-member state party central committee will decide at its April meeting if the Democrats will use caucuses or a primary to determine who gets Washington’s delegates.
Podlodowski declined to state a preference, saying she’d defer to the central committee.
But Democratic legislators are proceeding under the assumption that passing the bill to move up the primary will spur the party to ditch the caucuses.
Traditionally, both parties in Washington used caucuses. In 1989, an initiative to the Legislature created the state’s presidential primary, which were first conducted in 1992. But just because the people asked for a primary doesn’t mean the parties have to use it.
Democrats have continued to use caucuses to choose their candidate, while Republicans, until 2016, usually used both — awarding some delegates through the caucuses and some through the primary. In 2016, Republicans switched entirely to the primary.
In 2004 and 2012, the Legislature canceled the presidential primary and both parties used caucuses.
“Caucuses are inaccessible to many people,” said Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, the primary-election bill’s lead sponsor.
“In 2016, I spent that day 5 miles from my house, crammed into an elementary-school gymnasium with a few hundred of my closest friends,” he said. “There were too many of us for meaningful discussion to happen in many places, it lasted hours and figuring out the complex math formulas for who got to be a delegate and who got which numbers was excruciating.”
The one area of disagreement over the legislation concerns how much information about primary voters would be publicly available.
Currently, in order to vote in a presidential party primary, Washington voters must declare their affiliation with a party when they vote. That information is public. So while no one can know who you voted for, people can find out which party primary you voted in. Of course, caucuses are even more public, with everyone gathered in one room, stating their preferences openly.
In the state Senate, Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to amend the legislation to offer voters a third option — vote in either party’s primary, but as an “unaffiliated” voter, so nobody would know which primary you voted in.
“Independent voters, people who literally do not associate with a particular party label, we need to make options available to them,” said Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup.
Washington does not require voters to register by party, and nonpresidential primaries, unlike in most states, are not segregated by party — all the candidates run against one another, and the top two, regardless of party, advance.
The catch? The national political parties have serious sway over how presidential primaries are conducted and could refuse to recognize the votes of people who don’t publicly declare a party affiliation, according to both state party chairs.
“It’s a straw poll ballot that doesn’t count for anything at that point,” Podlodowski said.
Josh Putnam, an expert on election law who runs the site FrontloadingHQ on presidential primaries, said only a handful of states — including Alabama, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Montana — let people vote in a presidential primary without letting the parties know which primary they voted in. And all those states have other races combined on the ballot with the presidential race, making it somewhat less likely for voters to switch parties.
“The vast majority of states with no partisan registration require the voters either sign an affidavit of affiliation with a particular party and/or that their selection of a particular party ballot be made public,” Putnam said.
The parties are loath to deprive themselves of valuable information about who their supporters are.
“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,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans in the Legislature. “The taxpayers are paying for a fundraising tool for the political parties.”