Washington can vote outside party

Published on Thu, Jul 24, 2008 by eg Olson

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Washington can vote outside party

By Meg Olson

After a four-year court battle, Washington state will run an open primary allowing voters to pick the candidate they choose regardless of party affiliation.

“This is historic,” said Whatcom County auditor Shirley Forslof.
The August 19 primary election ballots will list candidates and a party preference, and the top two vote-getters will advance to the November general election. “A candidate’s preference doesn’t mean the candidate is nominated or endorsed by the party,” Forslof stressed.

The top-two system was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2004 as a replacement for the old blanket primary system.

Under the blanket primary system, used in Washington since 1936, voters could choose to vote for the candidate of their choice without making a declaration of party affiliation, and the top vote-getter from each party advanced to the general election.

In 2003 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found the system unconstitutional on the basis that it infringed on the rights of free association of political parties, since non-party members could participate in choosing a party’s candidate.

In 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision. The state put in place a ‘pick-a-party’ system, in which voters needed to declare party allegiance and vote only for those candidates.

The Washington State Grange, which had promoted the blanket primary 70 years earlier, put initiative 872 on the 2004 ballot to return to an open primary system.

Despite strong voter support the new ‘top-two’ system never ran because of ongoing legal challenges from major political parties, again claiming it was unconstitutional – a violation to their right of free association because a candidate can state a party preference without having the party endorsement.

In 2005 the U.S. District Court found I-872 unconstitutional and enjoined the state to return to a ‘pick-a-party’ primary. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in 2006.

The U.S. supreme court overturned that decision on March 18. The court found that the ‘top two’ system did not put a severe burden on the political parties right to associate, because party affiliation is irrelevant to the system’s structure, party preference appearing on the ballot only for voter information.

If the system can be implemented so that voters are not confused into thinking a preference for a party constitutes that party’s endorsement, it could proceed.

Forslof said primary ballots would be in the mail by July 30.

For U.S. Congressional District 2, for example, there are four candidates, three of them stating a preference for the Democratic Party, including incumbent Rick Larsen, and one stating a preference for the Republican party.

It is possible under the new system that the November general election will have two Democratic candidates running against each other for the position.

Other positions will include state offices for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, commissioner of public lands, and insurance commissioner.

Non-partisan judicial positions will also be on the ballot.