Secretary of state faces a dilemma

By DAVID AMMONS

Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Ralph Munro’s successor as Washington secretary of state won’t have the luxury of easing into office. From Day 1, he will have to grapple with how to broker a new primary election system for the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that blanket primaries, such as Washington pioneered in 1935, violate the political parties’ right to pick their own nominees without crossover voting.

For 65 years, Washington voters have not had to register by party and have been allowed to hopscotch around the primary ballot, choosing a favorite candidate for each office without regard for party label.

But now the parties want to assert their new court-given rights. And the public wants Olympia to keep its hands off the system they have loved for decades, says Munro, who attended a statewide series of hearings recently.

The 2001 Legislature and the new secretary of state will be caught in the middle. Munro, who announced his retirement before the high court ruled, calls the primary the biggest election concern in his 20-year tenure.

If lawmakers don’t strike just the right balance, either the federal courts will intervene for the parties or the people will rise up with an initiative that could outlaw partisan races in Washington, he says.

Into this mess come the contenders for Munro’s $78,000-a-year job.

Although four candidates are on the ballot, the winner is likely to be either Republican Sam Reed, the Thurston County auditor and former assistant secretary of state, or Democrat Don Bonker, a former Clark County auditor, congressman from Southwest Washington, two-time Senate contender and most recently a trade company executive.

Also on the ballot are Chris Loftis of the Reform Party and J. Bradley Gibson on the Libertarian Party ticket.

Neither Reed nor Bonker has made a definitive proposal on the primary, but both acknowledge it will be the pre-eminent issue facing the new secretary of state.

Reed, 59, says he wants a system as much like the current one as possible.

"I view my role as to articulate the importance of as much independence as possible, as much (ballot) secrecy as possible and as much openness as possible," he said.

Bonker, 63, said he wants to "devise a system that allows the maximum choice."

He said the parties’ First Amendment right of association must be balanced by what he calls the voters’ right of non-association, meaning that they shouldn’t be required to register by party or have their names put on a list when they take a party ballot.

He suggests a compromise. The parties would get lists of all voters willing to declare a party preference. And those who choose not to affiliate with a party could still vote in one party’s primary and their names would not be made public.

His party is requesting a system that does not allow crossover voting and that provides Democrats with a list of all who vote in their primary, including unaffiliated voters. Republicans still are studying the question, but some GOP leaders agree with the Democrats.

Both Reed and Bonker accuse the other of wanting a more closed system than voters seem to prefer. Reed said Bonker is the "hand-picked" candidate of the party leaders and will do their bidding. Bonker said Reed’s position might lead to party registration and giving the parties discretion whether to allow independents to participate. Both dispute the other’s characterization.

Bottom line: So far, Reed is staking out the position closer to the current setup.

The pair also is clashing over who is better equipped to handle the office.

Reed touts his hands-on knowledge of the office, his years as an award-winning county elections officer, his service as an elections observer in Uganda and Russia, and his experience working with the Legislature on behalf of the state’s county auditors.

Bonker, meanwhile, said he has a broader, better resume as a "trailblazing" auditor and member of Congress, and has more than a decade in the private sector, gaining an expertise in trade and foreign affairs.

Reed replies that Bonker sometimes thinks he running for trade representative, which isn’t part of the office duties.

Reed was the top vote-getter on primary night, outpolling Bonker by about 50,000 votes. But the combined Democratic vote was about 50 percent to the GOP candidates’ 45 percent. The only independent poll so far shows Bonker with a lead, but a large number of undecided votes. Reed believes he is ahead.

Gibson, the Libertarian, who polled about 3 percent of the total primary vote, says the state should eliminate taxpayer-funded primaries and let parties pick their own nominees through a process they pay for themselves.

Loftis, the Reform candidate, who got about 2 percent of the primary vote, has pledged to help forge a primary "that will both comply with the Supreme Court’s decision and serve the interests of Washington’s independent-minded voters."

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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