New primary system must work for independents, too

A week ago, many Washingtonians went to the polls with a twinge of regret. Independent-minded voters feared the election might be the last primary in which they ever take part.

And it could be, given the foolishly obstinate positions of the state’s Republican and Democratic parties.

To his credit, though, Secretary of State Ralph Munro is asking for public views on what changes to make to the primary system. He is holding hearings at several locations this week, including Bellingham on Wednesday and Bellevue on Thursday.

The secretary hopes that as few changes as possible will be inflicted on the voting public. After reviewing public comment, Munro will make recommendations to the Legislature on how to comply with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed Washington’s open type of primary. In January, the Legislature will get a chance to make changes in the primary voting laws. If the lawmakers fail to exercise their responsibility, the decision will be booted to a federal court.

All of this is an issue because the two major political parties have gone to court so they can force changes on the public. Despite 65 successful years of an open primary system here, the parties want to exercise what the court determined is their constitutional right to limit who votes in party primaries.

As Munro points out, there are a variety of voting systems in other states that meet the legal requirements. Many appear so partisan that they would surely cut primary election voting and, conceivably, overall participation in the political system. The most open system is one used by Louisiana, which allows anyone to vote without declaring a party affiliation. For each office, voters can select a candidate from any party. The candidates with the two highest vote totals then earn a spot on the general election ballot without regard to party affiliation. Thus, two Democrats or two Republicans could end up on the November ballot.

Since Washington voters have always shown a preference for independence, the Louisiana system merits extremely serious consideration. There are also other possibilities and, perhaps, some innovation that no one has implemented up to now.

As changes are made, it’s important for the Legislature to keep in mind that minor parties and independent candidates deserve careful consideration. Any revisions should put independents and small parties in a better position than they have now, or at least as good a one.

The Democrats and Republicans have been successful in making their wishes known to the courts. It is time for the public to start letting elected officials what the people want.

The closest hearings are 7 p.m. Wednesday at the council chambers of the Whatcom County Court House, 311 Grand Ave. in Bellingham and 7 p.m. Thursday at Bellevue Community College Room N201, 3000 Landerholm Circle SE. Public comments can also be mailed to the Office of the Secretary of State, Legislative Building, Olympia WA 98504-0220, faxed to 360-586-5629 or e-mailed to

elections@secstate.wa.gov

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