By Colin Cole
For The Herald
I agree with many of the proponents for the presidential primary that the traditional caucus system can be disenfranchising by artificially creating barriers to participation (“Washington pushing presidential primary from March to May,” The Herald, March 5). I believe it is important to use systems of elections that do not discourage voter participation or discount voters.
However, Washington state allocates delegates proportionately. This is objectively a good thing; the party recognizes that a winner-take-all system does not reflect the values of our communities or our voters. Sixty percent of the vote should mean 60 percent of the delegates, not 100 percent. Similarly, 25 percent of the vote should mean 25 percent of the delegates, not none.
There is a wrinkle here, however; the Democratic National Committee nomination contest mandates a 15 percent “viability threshold” for candidates. This threshold means that any candidate receiving less than 15 percnet of the vote has votes for them tossed out. This is not inherently a problem on its own, but it can easily become one under the right circumstances.
In a crowded contest, a primary system where voters are only allowed to make one choice threatens to disenfranchise wide swaths of the electorate and de-legitimize the outcome of the election. With 12 candidates declared, two more with official exploratory committees, and another 10 considering a run, it doesn’t take a math degree to realize that many candidates could receive anywhere from 1 to 14.9 percent of the vote. If only a few candidates receive 15 percent or more, 100 percent of the state’s delegates could be allocated to candidates that collectively received only a fraction of the vote, an undemocratic and ironically non-proportional outcome directly contrary to the intention of the delegate apportionment process.
Caucuses addresses this problem by giving voters the opportunity to switch their support to a second candidate if their first choice does not reach a threshold and is thus deemed “non-viable.” With a 15 percent viability threshold, the ability to express second preferences is critical. If the Washington State Democrats can conduct a primary that allows voters to indicate second and third preferences, using ranked-choice voting, that would be a best-of-both-worlds scenario that wouldn’t threaten to disenfranchise any voter. I would whole-heartedly and vehemently support such a proposal.
A primary conducted under the current proposed rules, however, could be inherently disenfranchising in ways that far outweigh the pitfalls of an improved caucus process.
If a primary cannot be conducted with ranked-choice voting, then state Democrats would be better off sticking with the caucuses, which allows voters to support a second choice if their first choice can’t win any delegates, and should instead make every effort to address all of the problems that make caucuses inherently disenfranchising: allow any and all Washington voters the ability to participate with no-excuse absentee ballots, disseminate these widely and make them available online, and pay if postage is required for any to participate.
The state’s caucus system is a flawed, imperfect system, but conducting a 2020 primary without ranked-choice voting could end up far more disastrous.
Colin Cole lives in Edmonds.