Secretary of State tries to make presidential primary worthwhile

It is Washington’s quadrennial quandary.

Every four years, the conversation starts anew on how to make this state’s presidential primary meaningful in the process of electing the nation’s next leader.

And should an election even be held if it can’t be done? Conducting a primary in 2016 will cost taxpayers an estimated $11.5 million.

The predicament is that voters desire one thing and the Democratic and Republican parties want something else, leaving the state’s chief election officer to bring the opposing forces together.

Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman thinks she can pull it off for 2016, though she needs support of the Legislature and agreement from the Democratic Party.

More on her plan in a moment. Here’s the history:

Washington is first, and forever, a caucus state. At those caucuses, the truly faithful of the Democratic and Republican parties gather to choose the delegates to the national conventions, where each party officially nominates its candidate for the Oval Office.

In 1988, a few voters got it in their heads that they wanted a say in the process. More than 200,000 people signed an Initiative to the Legislature calling for a presidential primary to give voice to a far greater number of the state’s voters.

In theory, presidential candidates would take note of this new primary and make sure the trails of their campaigns passed through Washington.

It worked pretty well in 2000 when, with no incumbent in the race, the four leading presidential candidates — Republicans George Bush and John McCain and Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley — campaigned in the state ahead of the primary. Bush and Gore won and went on to win their party’s nominations.

But for the most part, it hasn’t turned out that well. The state canceled the primary in 2004 and 2012, and some wonder if it shouldn’t be stopped entirely.

That’s because the Democratic Party ignores the election results and chooses its delegates solely on voting in caucuses. At this point that’s what it will do in 2016.

The Republican Party has allotted half its delegates based on the primary-election results, with caucus voting deciding the rest. That’s its intention in 2016.

Enter Wyman, the only Republican in statewide office, with a plan for dealing with the dilemma in 2016 when, as in 2000, there’s no incumbent running.

She’s pushing a bill to move up the date of Washington’s primary from May to March 8, putting it just one week after the Super Tuesday binge of contests.

Her proposal also requires the two major parties to assure her they will use the results in allocating a percentage of delegates. It doesn’t tell them how big a percentage, just that they will. Republicans are on board, Democrats are not, yet.

An earlier primary could lure the Democratic Party to sign on because that could give Washington Democrats a bit more sway if there are multiple candidates.

“The nominating process and the date of the primary really influence whether presidential candidates come to our state to campaign to voters or merely come through to fund raise,” she said Tuesday.

If Democrats get on board, next year voters will pick-a-party and get a ballot with only that party’s candidates.

If not, all candidates of all parties will appear on the same ballot, turning the primary into little more than a beauty contest that costs $11.5 million. That could incite calls for the state to cancel the primary.

Gov. Jay Inslee may already know the answer. He eliminated funding for the primary in his proposed budget, which means he wants to cancel it.

Wyman isn’t ready to throw in the towel.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” she said. “We need the results of the presidential primary to mean something. This election is too important.”

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at Contact him at 360-352-8623; and on Twitter at @dospueblos

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