'Cajun' Primary Spices Washington Ballot

Just weeks after grumbling their way through a new partisan primary election in September, Washington voters may ditch it and switch to a Louisiana-style "Top 2" system.

The issue seems to touch a raw nerve with many independent-minded voters who feel disenfranchised by federal court rulings that doomed the 70-year-old "blanket" primary that allowed them to select a favorite for each office, regardless of party.

This spring, Gov. Gary Locke (search) decisively used his veto pen on an ambivalent fix passed by the Legislature and created a system that allows voters to mark only one party's ballot.

The Grange, the original sponsor of the blanket primary all those years ago, struck back with Initiative 872 to create a Top 2 system that qualifies two finalists for each office.

Polls show the measure likely to pass. If it does, political parties say they'll head to court and assert the right to decide who can use their party label.

Backers said the first running of the new primary in September amounted to a $12 million campaign ad for the initiative.

Dire warnings of rock-bottom turnout didn't come out. A relatively robust 45 percent of registered voters turned out. But election officials said many voters were confused and angry.

Nearly every other state has partisan primaries and many states require voters to register by party.

But after the Legislature approved the Grange's original blanket primary initiative back in the '30s, Washington voters grew to love the ability to "vote for the person, not the party." Crossover voting was commonplace as voters hopscotched across party lines as they worked their way down the primary ballot.

When California voters adopted a similar system, the political parties appealed, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in 2000 that the blanket primary infringes on parties' 1st Amendment rights of association. In other words, parties could exclude nonmembers from picking their standard-bearers.

After some twists and turns, Washington lost its final appeal last fall and had to ditch the blanket primary. Lawmakers passed a bill imposing the Top 2 system, but included the Montana plan as a fallback should a court challenge invalidate the Top 2.

Some said it was an open invitation for the governor to veto the Top 2 and leave the Montana system. Locke did just that.

A high-powered opposition group quickly sprang up to battle the initiative that followed, including Locke and three of his predecessors, the major political parties and the League of Women Voters.

The new primary would have the look and feel of the old blanket primary, with voters able to choose their favorite for each office, regardless of party label, said Grange President Terry Hunt.

"As long as our tax dollars are paying for the primaries, we should be able to choose whomever we want to represent us, regardless of party," Hunt said. "We are talking about the election of public officials."

But the opponents said the proposed fix would create a whole new set of problems, freezing out minor parties and sometimes resulting in two finalists from the same party.

"I think people would be very surprised to find, if this thing passes, that they have no real choices in the November election" in some races, Locke said.

In heavily Democratic areas like Seattle, Republican voters might not have GOP candidates to vote for. In Republican areas of Eastern Washington, some races might not have a Democratic finalist.

In 1996, he noted, he and fellow Democrat Norm Rice would have been the gubernatorial finalists. In 1980, Republican John Spellman finished third in the primary, behind Democrats Dixy Lee Ray and Jim McDermott. He won the governor's mansion that year.

Grange adviser Don Whiting, a former top elections official, said those examples are rare, and would be rarer still once candidates and parties adjusted to the new setup. And Whiting argues that its a good thing that voters in a fundamentally one-party district might face candidates from different wings of the party.

Richard Kelley, spokesman for the opposition, said the initiative "gives you a slightly greater range of choices in the primary, but everyone's choice in the general election would be sharply restricted."

Locke said the turnout is much higher in November and that choices should be the widest possible then.

Kelley said the initiative is on shaky legal ground and likely would be overturned by the courts. But Whiting said the U.S. Supreme Court already has signaled its approval of a qualifying primary by specifically approving of Louisiana's system in the 2000 ruling.

Todd Donovan, political science professor at Western Washington University and an expert on primaries, predicted the initiative will pass.

"It's almost a slam dunk," he said. "People in this state like to call themselves independents. They're products of a populist tradition and an almost anti-party sentiment."

If the Top 2 passes, many districts will become more competitive, with neither party willing to get frozen off the ballot, he said. Legislative races that are often decided in the primary will move on to the general election, and the outcome will tend to reflect the average voter's sentiment better than the old system, he said.