‘Top two’ primary: new ballots, new headaches?

OLYMPIA — Candidates, voters and the political parties will notice some big changes when the first “top two” primary is held this summer — starting with what gets written on the ballot.

Details on the new wording and the conduct of the Aug. 19 primary are spelled out in draft regulations issued Wednesday by the Office of the Secretary of State.

The most visible change affects those running in partisan races.

They will not have a political party identification next to their name on the ballot. Instead, the candidate’s name will appear and underneath will be the phrase “Prefers Democratic Party” or “Prefers Republican Party” or a similar note for another party.

The most notable change may be seeing all candidates, including those of minor parties, grouped together in each race like the old blanket primary. Then the top two vote-getters will advance to the November election.

“The voters are going to love this. The voters want to vote for the person, not the party, and they’re getting a ballot allowing them to do that,” state elections director Nick Handy said.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., didn’t mute his disappointment with the proposed wording, saying it will likely incite more confusion among voters, not less.

“I don’t prefer being a Democrat. I am a Democrat,” he said. “Voters will look at that ballot and say, ‘What does it mean to prefer the Democratic Party?’”

There is a potential for a bit of electoral high jinks. Each candidate will have 16 characters with which to identify the party they prefer. While most will choose “Prefers Democratic Party” or “Prefers Republican Party” there is nothing stopping a person from ordering “Prefers Left-Handed Party” or another made-up name.

Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz used Wednesday’s release of the rules to again lash out against the “top two” and its stalwart promoter, Secretary of State Sam Reed.

In a prepared statement, Pelz said it will reduce minor parties and partisan competition in general elections.

“The Libertarian, Green, Independent and Progressive parties can sell their office furniture and computers, because they will never again see their names on a meaningful ballot in our state,” he said.

A state Republican Party spokesman said he could not comment until party lawyers finish analyzing the 38 pages of regulations.

“We’ll have additional comment in the coming days,” GOP spokesman Patrick Bell said.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the political parties’ challenge of Initiative 872, creating the top two primary.

State election officials immediately started writing the regulations with the high court opinion in mind and the threat of legal action by the parties looming.

One of the most difficult problems they faced was how to inform voters that a candidate may associate with a political party that has not endorsed or nominated them.

What those in the offices of the secretary of state and attorney general came up with is a paragraph making plain that a person can prefer a party but that party may not prefer them.

It reads: “Each candidate for partisan office may state a political party that he or she prefers. A candidate’s preference does not imply that the candidate is nominated or endorsed by the party, or that the party approves of or associates with that candidate.”

This disclaimer must appear on the ballot and on a separate sheet of paper mailed in the same envelope as the ballot.

“I think it will be very confusing,” Larsen said. “My answer to this is to go back to like it used to be. Have an open primary and let the people pick.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

Getting informed

The Office of the Secretary of State posted text of the rules on its Web site at http://secstate.wa.gov.

Public comment on the rules will be accepted through Tuesday, with final adoption expected next week. Pending any delays, the rules will be in place by mid-May when candidates can begin filing. Go to www.secstate.wa.gov/_assets/elections/Summary41608.pdf to read the document.

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