Hell bent for primary election

Today columnist Kate Riley continues the Seattle Times’ year-long temper tantrum against partisan primaries, by pointing to comparable political fits being thrown in California, Oregon and Alaska as evidence of a potentially brighter, nonpartisan future. [“Don’t pinch me; I have a dream we can improve our political process“]

First let me restate my position on this issue. I have nothing against partisan primaries; it only makes sense that parties should choose their own candidates. Since moving here in 1991, I’ve always found WA’s “open primary” rather silly and open to abuse. I myself have cynically crossed over to vote in the GOP primary, not simply to help select a weaker opponent (think Ellen Craswell and John Carlson), but also as a protest gesture.

On the other hand, I am absolutely flabbergasted that we would reach down into the political muck of the Louisiana bayous to dredge up Initiative 872’s “top-two” primary, a system that will surely introduce an odd political calculous to our already muddled elections.

This is a system that will only enhance the antidemocratic tendencies of party leaders like Chris Vance and his GOPolitiburo — for strict party discipline is the only way for one party to assure a spot in the general election. For example, GOP attorney-general candidate Rob McKenna was nearly outpolled by Democratic runnerup, Mark Sidran. Had this been a top-two primary, and had the GOP allowed McKenna to face a serious challenge, we’d have a Sidran-Senn rematch on November 2.

(Okay… I wouldn’t mind that… but you get the point.)

In fact with all the gnashing of teeth, I’ve seen very little real debate over the merits of the competing primary systems. As far as I can tell, the main argument in favor of an open primary is that voters like it, and the main argument against a partisan primary is that they don’t.

Unlike most of the media whiners, Riley at least tries to put forth a rationale, that partisan primaries lead to more partisan, divided government. Well, A) I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing, and B) it’s anecdotal conjecture. Most other states have partisan primaries, and I’m wondering, how many have legislatures more divided and partisan than ours?

Personally, I’ve always felt that much of the anger over this issue stems from a wistful nostalgia for doing things our own way, and Riley seems to echo this sentiment:

The commonality is not lost on my fellow yearners for something better. Imagine moderates in the West, which was built on independent-minded sensibilities, seizing their state political systems and igniting a new movement to the political center that spreads across the nation.

Yeah, fine. Of course it’s hard to spark a political movement towards the center, since by definition, that’s where we already are.

But more important, I fail to see how adoption of a top-two primary, or stubborn defense of our unconstitutional open system, has anything to do with populism or progressivism or the “independent-minded sensibilities” that Riley so clearly cherishes.

The Times and The Grange and all the other passionate proponents of I-872 have started from the assumption that a 70-year-old progressive reform still has some sort of reformist relevance today. When in fact, all they’re really doing is defending the status quo.

Furthermore, their indignation is largely misplaced, for while you can certainly blame the Legislature and Governor Locke for their ham-fisted last minute efforts to deal with the crisis, this appalling failure of political leadership is only surpassed by I-872 proponents’ total lack of imagination.

You want real election reform? How about Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), a system used worldwide that could preserve the rights of parties while eliminating publicly financed primaries altogether?

An IRV can be a primary and a general election rolled into one. Rather than choosing a single candidate, voters rank their choices in order of preference. If your first choice is eliminated, your vote goes to your second choice, and so on, until a single candidate wins by a clear majority, not just a plurality.

For example, if we had IRV you could safely rank Nader as your first choice, without throwing the election to Bush.

Vote your conscience? Man, what a concept! But not one the Seattle Times apparently wants you to know about, for even though there’s an active signature drive to put IRV before the legislature, the Times and their media cohorts refuse to report on I-318!

For all their populist posturing about the parties denying us the right to vote for the candidate of our choice, the Times doesn’t seem genuinely interested in offering us our choice of primaries. Instead they’ve been inexplicably driving “top-two,” hell bent for election since day one.

I-872 might give voters the chance to deliver a satisfying “fuck you” to Olympia, but as a method of selecting party candidates it clearly sucks.

Given the choice, I’d rather have no primary at all.


  1. 1


    After reading the text of I-318, I could find nothing that would prohibit any party from holding a nominating convention and submitting their nominee to the ballot for the general election under IRV, so I wouldn\’t have a problem with it, but it\’s not \”a primary and a general election rolled into one.\”

    Further thoughts: Instant Democracy

  2. 2

    Goldy spews:

    An IRV does not necessarily eliminate the primary, but it can be implemented that way, and in my opinion, it should. The process by which candidates qualify for the ballot is a separate issue entirely, and the parties certainly could implement their own nominating process.

    Remember, I-318 is an initiative to the legislature and if it met signature threshold would most likely result in an alternative proposal. Personally, I think it\’s a great start on prompting discussion about a creative reform.

  3. 4

    Ed spews:

    First off, you\’re just plain wrong as to how to read the vote totals. You\’d have to put the smart money on McKenna over Senn in the AG\’s race. Your confidence that the Democrat vote totals mean victory for the Dems in Novemeber is just ignorant.
    Secondly, if we pass the Grange\’s initiative, it\’s nominating conventions for us. People should know that a vote for the Cajun primary is a vote for the end of their participation in primaries.

  4. 5

    Goldy spews:

    Ed, my confidence that Dems have an electoral advantage in WA is based on my 12-year experience in this state in which apart from the Sec. of State\’s office, the GOP has won a total of TWO state-wide races! There is a simple reason for this: WA has more D\’s than R\’s. The primary vote total only bears this out.

    And I don\’t buy the common wisdom that Senn is more vulnerable than Sidran because she is more liberal. The majority of general election voters really will have very little idea about what either candidate stands for. Don\’t underestimate Senn\’s name-recognition advantage… it\’s what won her the primary, and it is what will likely lead her to victory over McKenna.

    As to the stupid-ass Cajun primary… I hope it\’s passage results in nominating conventions… it will serve the voters right. But I don\’t really believe either party has the balls to carry through on that threat.

  5. 6

    Ed spews:

    You may be right about that. It would set up a Prisoner’s Dilemna situation, where each party wants to stay strong but has an incentive to cave