Washington could become a bigger player in the presidential campaign if a bill approved this week by the state Senate and now in the House becomes law.
Senate Bill 5978 would restore the presidential primary for the 2016 election year and move it up to the second Tuesday in March, a week after the March 1 Super Tuesday primary. If the state can organize its own super primary with other Western states, it could happen even earlier.
The presidential primary hasn’t held a great deal of influence or interest, either with voters or candidates, who haven’t spent much time campaigning in The Evergreen State. The 2012 presidential primary was even canceled as a way of saving $10 million when the state was strapped for cash that year.
Washington has instead used the caucus system, where neighbors in precinct meetings are a part of the delegate-selection process for the national Republican and Democratic party conventions, which explains how televangelist Pat Robertson, rather than George H.W. Bush, won the state for Republicans in 1988. The caucuses remain an important part of the political process by giving anyone who attends a voice in helping the parties draft their platforms and choose delegates.
More than moving up the date, the legislation also could give the primary more weight, depending on the response by the two major parties. If both parties agree to allocate at least some of their convention delegates according to the results of the primary, the primary ballot would require voters to declare a party preference before voting for a particular candidate. This would sweeten the deal for parties as each voter’s party preference would be public record and available to the parties as they seek names for potential donors and volunteers. This would be a departure from the state’s Top Two primary system, which will remain intact for other offices. The Top Two puts all candidates on the ballot and sends the two candidates receiving the most votes, regardless of party, on to the general election.
If one or both parties decline to allocate delegates based on the primary, then the ballot will be opened up to include all candidate names and won’t require voters to declare their party preference. The Republican Party has typically used the primary in allocating at least some of its delegates, and state party Chairwoman Susan Hutchison said Republicans will use the 2016 primary results in allocating at least half of their delegates. The state Democratic Party has not used the primary to make that decision and may prefer to stick with the caucus system.
That’s each party’s right, as an organization, to make its decisions as it sees fit, as it would remain the right of the Legislature to determine the rules for state elections.
Running a presidential primary in 2016 will cost the state about $11.5 million to reimburse counties for running a special election. But elections are one of the state’s expected duties, and by encouraging the parties to use the results of the primary, it’s attempting to make that election mean more than a beauty contest.