Reforming how we vote

Some practices, like muscle memory, are so hard-wired that change is unimaginable. That’s why enlightened electoral reform — with an emphasis on “enlightened” — often requires a king-size shove, however sensible the fix.

Still, a little reform, now and then, is a good thing.

Tuesday’s primary election is a case study in preserved-in-amber practices that merit legislative scrutiny. When only two candidates are running for the same office, for example, should voters weigh in during the primary as well as the general election?

Redundancy and virtue become indivisible as voters consider two candidates in August and the same two candidates in November. The political class (who ultimately decide such questions) embrace the practice, receiving a gratis, taxpayer-funded poll every primary. Candidates analyze precinct-by-precinct results, re-noodle their campaign strategy and voter targeting, and often mobilize contributors with a “Look how close I got” or “My opponent is a serious threat” mantra. Washington can do better.

Other electoral tweaks are self-evident. Formidable incumbents often go unchallenged, but their names still appear on both the primary and the general-election ballot. A sensible, cost-saving approach would have them advance directly to the general.

A credible objection to a push-them-to-November reform revolves around write-in candidates who could get marginalized. In 1994, Linda Smith defeated incumbent U.S. Congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld, sidelining a fellow-Republican candidate along the way. Write-ins are part of the democratic fabric, but all voters, irrespective of the primary, always have the option of scribbling in whomever they want on the November ballot.

How archaic and Rube Goldberg-ish are the ballot rules? Beware any soul who claims that she or he can navigate the thicket of do’s and don’ts regarding judicial elections without cribbing from a how-to matrix. If you live in a county in Washington with a population over 100,000 and you are the sole candidate for Superior Court Judge, you are automatically issued a certificate of election at the time you file. Pray tell why? Because, well, that’s the way we do it here.

There is a solution. Citizens can elbow their legislators to pull together a package of electoral reforms that also includes moving the primary to a more voter-friendly June 1. Call it the “Sam Reed Good Government Act” in honor of Washington’s distinguished and long-serving Secretary of State. Reed, who has toiled in the thankless, esoteric salt mine of good-government-ism for decades, deserves a tangible retirement tribute worthy of his public-service career (a tribute that would, most importantly, benefit the people of Washington.)

Reed’s example illustrates that all of us can challenge state lawmakers to reach beyond the been-this-way-for-years’ clich├ęs. Behavior and expectations are conditioned, especially in politics. That doesn’t mean it always needs to be so.