Demos threaten suit on primary

By SUSANNA RAY

Herald Writer

The battle for separate party ballots in September began this week with a Democratic threat of a lawsuit unless the state agrees by Wednesday to change the way Washingtonians have voted for 65 years.

Voters have been accustomed to a "blanket primary," which lets them choose among all candidates and all parties for each office in primary elections. Washington’s system is different from most other states’, in which voters have to register with a certain party and then receive a ballot with only that party’s candidates.

In fact, many voters were upset when they were asked to choose a party in February’s presidential primary.

But it’s something they’ll have to get used to.

When California adopted Washington’s system in 1996, four state parties protested, arguing that nonmembers should not be allowed to choose a party’s candidates. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week, ruling California’s blanket primary unconstitutional.

That decision didn’t automatically abolish Washington’s system, but it means that any court challenge against it would likely be upheld.

Alaska, the only other state with a blanket primary, immediately scrapped its system and decided on a two-ballot primary in August – one for Republicans and one for all others. The Associated Press reported Thursday that an Anchorage activist’s attempts to stop the change in court may be too late because the ballots were already scheduled to go to the printer.

Washington election officials said last week that it’s too late to change this year’s Sept. 19 primary, so they would put together proposals for the Legislature to consider in January for next year’s election.

But that’s not soon enough, state Democratic party chairman Paul Berendt said.

Berendt wrote to Secretary of State Ralph Munro this week asking for a ballot in the primary election with only Democrats listed, and threatening to sue unless the state agreed to the change.

"The Party will not stand idly by while the State deprives it of its rights through indifference," Berendt wrote. "We will take appropriate action."

But Gary McIntosh, the state elections director, said only the Legislature or the courts can change state law, so the situation is out of his hands.

Republican state chairman Don Benton said his party is "very supportive of having Republicans choose the Republican nominee," but "we’d rather use a more thoughtful approach" to changing the voting system.

That doesn’t mean Benton opposes changing it this year, but he said he’d prefer to have a methodical process make its way through the Legislature, even if that requires a special legislative session before September. He said he has created a party task force to study the situation.

Berendt wrote that the change would not involve "extreme confusion and disruption for voters," but Benton said a public backlash is "a definite risk if you go the lawsuit route."

Democratic Gov. Gary Locke agreed with the Republican viewpoint in a statement released Thursday.

"I strongly disagree with the sudden move to demand an instant change in our current primary procedures," Locke said. "Primaries in Washington need to be discussed on a legislative level before any decisions can be made."

Berendt said that since candidates haven’t filed yet and ballots haven’t been printed, there is "ample time" to make the changes by Sept. 19.

McIntosh disagreed. Ballots may not have been printed yet, he said, but most counties have already received their ballot stock and have coded the ballots for counting. That would need to be changed, and more ballots would need to be ordered if each party wanted a separate ballot.

It also would make the election more expensive, he added, and extra planning would be required to get an idea of how many voters in each county would be likely to ask for a certain party’s ballot. Alaskan officials expect the changes there to cost $400,000 this year.

Several minor party leaders said Thursday they hadn’t expected the primary to change this year and so haven’t decided yet what sort of system they’d like to see in future years.

But Richard Shepard with the state Libertarian party said he fears minor parties could get shut out of the primary and general elections if Democrats succeed in abolishing the blanket primary this year.

Right now, minor party candidates have to get 1 percent of the vote in the primary to advance to the general ballot. Shepard said some voters might want to vote for a Libertarian for one spot or another, but very few would probably want to pick up an exclusively Libertarian ballot.

"I have a deep respect for the fierce independence of Washington voters," Locke said in his release. "We cannot shut out independent voters from the primary process."

You can call Herald Writer Susanna Ray at 425-339-3439or send e-mail to

ray@heraldnet.com.

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