OLYMPIA — Washington state’s primary system is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide whether the state’s voter-approved “top two” primary is constitutional.
Attorney General Rob McKenna, who will argue the case before the nation’s high court next Monday, said he is “seeking to uphold the will of the voters.”
Washington voters passed Initiative 872 in 2004, allowing voters to pick their favorite for each office, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the November general election, even if they are from the same party.
The political parties challenged it in federal courts, asserting a First Amendment right for the parties to select their own nominees without outside forces interfering.
The state government and the Washington State Grange have been sparring with the political parties ever since the high court threw out the state’s blanket primary in a California case in 2000.
The blanket primary was adopted by an initiative drafted during the 1930s by the Grange, organized labor and other groups. It allowed voters to split their tickets, voting for one party for governor and another party for state senator, for instance.
The court said that violated the parties’ right to nominate their candidates without outsiders taking part in the primary. The Legislature responded with the top-two system, but then-Gov. Gary Locke vetoed it and the state reverted to a Montana-style “pick-a-party” system that requires voters to restrict themselves to one party’s slate of candidates.
Voters soon passed the Grange-sponsored Initiative 872 by a 60 percent vote.
The parties sued, and won in both the U.S. District Court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“The intent of this initiative was pretty clear to recreate an unconstitutional blanket primary,” said David McDonald, attorney for the state Democrats. “It forces the party to have their spokespeople chosen by people who aren’t part of the organization. It allows people from adverse political views to pick who’s going to speak for the parties.”
But McKenna said the initiative has nothing to do with choosing the party candidates. He said the parties will nominate their own candidates. Other candidates wouldn’t have to belong to a particular party, but could have a party preference listed after their name, such as “conservative Democrat” or “moderate Republican.”