OLYMPIA — The state’s presidential primary is moving up to early March starting in 2020, which should give Washington voters greater prominence in choosing the Democratic and Republican nominees.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation Thursday to conduct the quadrennial electoral event on the second Tuesday in March rather than late May. For next year, it means an election on March 10, putting it a few weeks after the Iowa caucuses and a few days after Super Tuesday, when there are primaries in nine states.
But there’s a catch.
To have their ballot counted, voters will have to say they are a member of the political party of the candidate they are backing.
That’s why Janice Lyle of Marysville said she will be sitting it out.
She considers herself a political independent and is unwilling to pledge allegiance to the Democratic or Republican party, even for just this election.
“I want to continue to do my civic duties and one of those is to vote,” she said. “But I can’t, unless I lie, and that puts me in a bad place. There are so many of us who are not claiming either party these days and not letting us vote because we will not make the declaration is disenfranchising.”
Lyle is one of six Washington residents who asked Inslee to veto Senate Bill 5273 because it did not provide an opportunity for unaffiliated voters to participate. They are part of a national group of independent voters.
“Since the presidential primaries are taxpayer-funded elections, all voters, regardless of affiliation, should be allowed to participate,” they wrote.
Inslee said of the bill and their concerns, “It’s the only way that I could see really moving forward to have their votes count in presidential primaries and be consistent with the rules of the road that the parties have put up.”
As the legislation made its way through the process, most Republican lawmakers endorsed the earlier date but wanted a means for independents to participate.
“Today will be remembered as a big win for the political parties in Washington but a lost opportunity on behalf of our many voters who value independence and privacy,” Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville said in a statement.
The state has allowed voters to cast ballots in a presidential primary without picking a party and then tallied those results separately.
It happened in 2000. Unaffiliated voters accounted for roughly 40 percent of the ballots cast.
In raw numbers, 521,218 voted as independents, while 491,148 cast Republican ballots and 297,001 cast Democratic ballots.
Breaking down the results, George W. Bush beat John McCain among ballots cast by Republicans while McCain beat Bush on ballots cast by unaffiliated voters. Overall, Bush wound up with roughly 2,300 more votes.
“A general principle in a Democratic republic is that anything that isolates or alienates a big block of voters runs counter to the foundations of the republic,” said Brian Baird of Edmonds, a Democrat and former United States congressman who co-founded a group to recruit and elect independent candidates.
“More and more people are expressing dissatisfaction with the two parties,” he said. “To leave them out means we will have more alienated voters.”
Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, said that, because the primary is a nominating event, “true independents” should not worry about participating.
“Failure to cast a ballot in the presidential primary doesn’t mean anything other than a lack of desire to participate in party politics,” he said.
Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state Republican Party and co-founder of Washington Independents with Baird, also iterated that the purpose of the primary is for members of those political parties to choose their nominee.
“People in Washington state have been very frustrated for a very long time over this,” he said. “Like it or not, you have to accept the fact that the two parties control this process.”
He’s excited at the prospect that an earlier primary will make Washington a destination for candidates.
That presumes both parties use the results to allot their delegates to the national conventions. Republicans are committed to doing so; Democrats haven’t decided. Party leaders are in the midst of surveying members.
“If Democrats choose to use this primary, the circus is going to come to town and we’re going to be involved,” Vance said. “I think it’s great.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.