OLYMPIA — Washington is moving closer to gaining a bigger say in determining the Democratic and Republican nominees for president in 2020.
On Wednesday, the state Senate approved a bill to hold the presidential primary on the second Tuesday in March rather than the fourth one in May, as now required.
It would result in an election March 10, 2020, the same day as Idaho, Ohio and Michigan and one week after Super Tuesday, when there are primaries in nine states including California, Texas, Massachusetts, Alabama and Virginia.
And, if it becomes law, the bill’s sponsors are counting on the Democratic Party to agree to apportion delegates based on results of the 2020 primary — as the GOP is already committed to doing — rather than caucuses.
“We want this primary to be meaningful and move away from the caucus system that disenfranchises millions of voters,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, before the final vote.
Senate Bill 5273 passed on a mostly partisan 29-18 vote. The Snohomish County delegation’s five Democratic senators backed the bill while its two Republican senators opposed it.
It now goes to the House for consideration.
The sticky political point is a requirement for people to check a box aligning themselves with one of the major parties if they want their vote counted for a candidate. Both national parties demand only those who self-identify as Democrat or Republican can help select their respective presidential nominee. This practice was in effect in Washington’s 2016 primary.
Republican senators, and one conservative Democrat who caucuses with them, tried unsuccessfully to add language allowing independents to participate and get their votes counted.
“I just feel the unaffiliated voters are being shafted,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, before he voted against the bill.
Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, said he agreed with holding the primary earlier but did not want to exclude independent voters.
“It’s sending a bad message that independents don’t count,” he said.
There have been times when the state allowed for unaffiliated voters. It’s what Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman has called the “relief valve” because it would let people vote without picking a party and their ballots would be counted but not included in the totals. When the state did this in 2000, unaffiliated voters accounted for 40 percent of the 1.3 million ballots cast.
The leader of the state Republican Party liked Wednesday’s outcome. The GOP has publicly pushed for a March primary date for several years.
“We are a very strong proponent of moving it up because it will allow the voices of Washington voters to be heard,” said Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the state Republican Party. “We’re definitely excited to have it be relevant.”
In 2016, the party allotted its presidential delegates based on the primary results and plan to do so again in 2020. The Democratic Party uses caucuses to distribute delegates. If the bill passes, it is presumed party leaders will decide to change course and apportion delegates based on the results. Democratic leaders could make that decision this spring.
The presidential primary in Washington hasn’t been around long but has stirred its share of controversy.
A 1989 citizen initiative prompted its establishment by the Legislature. Washington held its first primary in 1992. Since then, there have been four more while two were canceled — in 2004 and 2012 — for financial reasons.
It hasn’t magnified the state’s influence as some envisioned, in part because scheduling it on the fourth Tuesday in May — which would be one of the latest on the 2020 primary calendar — all but assures the outcome is superfluous.