Washington pushing presidential primary to March from May

The move could boost the state’s influence in determining the Democratic and GOP nominees next year.

OLYMPIA — A bill moving up the state’s presidential primary to early March from late May cleared its final legislative hurdle Monday, ensuring Washington voters get a louder voice in determining the Democratic and Republican nominees for president next year.

Democrats used their majority in the House to pass legislation which would result in an election March 10, 2020. That would be the same day as primaries in Idaho, Ohio and Michigan and one week after Super Tuesday, when there are primaries in nine states including California, Texas, Massachusetts, Alabama and Virginia.

The bill, which the Senate approved in January, passed on a 54-42 vote. Gov. Jay Inslee, currently one of the Democrats vying for his party’s presidential nomination, is expected to sign it.

There is a catch which independent voters are not going to like.

Under the bill, if voters want to participate they are going to have to say they are a member of the political party of the candidate they are backing.

In most states, only those who self-identify as Democrat or Republican can help select the parties’ respective presidential nominee. This practice was in effect in Washington’s 2016 primary. However, state parties can adopt rules under which voters who decline to state a party preference could still participate in their presidential primaries.

In the floor debate, Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, said it is not a burden to ask that people be part of a party in order to help select the standard bearer for that party.

House Republicans disagreed. They attempted unsuccessfully to remove that requirement, arguing it would cause hundreds of thousands of independent voters to sit out the election because they do not want to affiliate with a political party.

“We’re not here to serve the purposes of the parties. We are a populist state. We are an independent state,” declared Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. “Let’s let the people speak when it comes to the presidential primary.”

There have been times when the state allowed people to vote without picking a party and their ballots were 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.

Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman wanted language added to allow voters to participate in the primary without declaring a party affiliation. Though disappointed, she said in a statement Monday that she was “immensely gratified” the primary will be held earlier. She’s lobbied for the change for several years.

“Moving Washington’s primary earlier in the national process will give our voters a greater voice and draw more attention to our state’s concerns and issues,” she said.

Once Washington’s moves up, the next question is how each party will use the results.

In 2016, the state Republican Party allotted its presidential delegates based on the primary results and plan to do so again in 2020.

The state Democratic Party used caucuses to distribute delegates in 2016. It is presumed party leaders will abandon caucuses in favor of apportioning delegates based on the results. Democratic leaders are expected to make a 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 because it occurs in late May, one of the latest on the primary calendar, when nominees are generally determined.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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