Primary election voters have all the fun. And a lot of the power.
Those who wait and only mark their ballots for the general election, rather than participate in the primary — that’s today, if you’ve forgotten and your ballot’s still sitting in a pile of catalogues and campaign mailers — see only the narrowest selection of candidates, having left to primary voters the task of winnowing down the field to the top two candidates.
Washington state’s primary elections, since 2008, have used the top-two system to determine who moves on to the general election for all partisan local, state and federal offices except the president. Only three other states — California, Louisiana and Nebraska — use some form of the top-two primary. Most state use either closed primaries, requiring voters to register a party preference and limiting voting to only those candidates of the declared party, or open primaries, where voters don’t declare a party but are still limited to voting for one party’s candidates.
Since the 1930s, Washington state voters, who had long prided themselves on their independence, had used a blanket primary to select candidates for the general election. The blanket primary allowed them to choose, for example, a Democrat in one race, a Republican in another, and a third-party candidate in yet another. But the blanket primary was declared unconstitutional in 2003 by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
To replace it state voters in 2004 passed Initiative 872, which approved the switch to the top-two primary. Court challenges delayed its implementation until 2008.
But while the top-two system preserves the ability of voters to vote across party lines for individual candidates in the primary, it has resulted in some peculiarities.
Washington state’s primary, as the name suggests, moves the top two candidates to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Last November, for example, that meant that after the primary election the race for Snohomish County executive offered a choice of two Democrats: Dave Somers and John Lovick. Likewise, other races, particularly for legislative seats, have offered a general election choice between two Republicans or two Democrats.
There are other drawbacks to top-two.
Primary elections typically are prone to low voter turnout. For today’s primary, only about 14 percent of ballots had been returned before the weekend. And state election officials are expecting a final ballot return around 40 percent, less than half the turnout expected for the Nov. 8 general election. For races in this primary, such as U.S. senator with 17 primary candidates and governor with 11 candidates, that’s a relative few making the choice of who’ll be in the general election.
Top two also is a disadvantage for those candidates from third parties or independents, again limiting choice for the general election when there’s increased interest recently in an alternative to the two major parties.
Louisiana’s primary offers one potential reform: Its “jungle primary” puts all candidates on equal footing for the general election, awarding the office to any candidate who receives more than 50 percent. If no candidate reaches that mark, a run-off is held between the two top candidates.
But another alternative is suggested by a nonprofit organization called FairVote that advocates for election and other democratic reforms. Among the reforms it suggests are election of the president by popular vote rather than the Electoral College, ranked choice voting and opening primary elections to 17-year-olds. (Fun fact: FairVote’s board chairman is Krist Novoselic, the politically minded former bass guitarist for groundbreaking grunge band Nirvana.)
FairVote’s proposed reform, called Top Four, would keep the basics of Washington’s primary while expanding the field for the general election from two candidates to four. Any candidate receiving at least 20 percent of the primary vote or finishing among the top four candidates would make the ballot in November.
Top Four, FairVote says on its website, would increase the likelihood of at least one Democrat and one Republican qualifying for the general election, and would also improve the chances for third-party candidates and independents. And it could limit instances where one party benefits and wins both general election spots if a large field of candidates from the other party splits its supporters’ votes.
Washington state’s voters, seeking to preserve the split-ticket voting they enjoyed under the blanket primary, approved I-872’s top-two primary with nearly 60 percent of the vote. The Top Four primary could keep that independence while enhancing voters’ choices in the general election.