With the new primary system comes limitations


The independent voters of Washington state got an early holiday present from the U.S. Supreme Court. By a vote of 7-2, the Supreme Court ruled that the “top two” primary system was valid and could be used by Washington for its state primary.

This issue has been pursued by the Washington State Grange which originally gave the voters of the state its open primary. That open system held for more than 70 years, long enough for the voters of this state to feel they were entitled to it. It was a shock to have it thrown out because it violated the political parties right of assembly.

So, the Grange came back with the “top two” — a system that allows only the top two vote getters in the primary to advance to the general election. For an organization that put forth the open primary as a way to wrest control over the primaries from the parties, it seems somewhat contradictory they would choose a system that benefits only those who vote in the primaries, not the general election.

Of course, they would maintain that the above statement is incorrect. Why? Because the “top two” primary will allow voters to choose whomever they want for every race without regard to party affiliation thereby giving voters many choices. That sounds good but the reality is that this system will limit voter choices in the general election. For a group that doesn’t want to see power concentrated in the parties, this decision has just brought this about.

Consider this scenario: in a primary ballot for a state office, there are two candidates each from the Democratic party, the Green party, the Reform party and the Republican party. Before, even under the Montana primary where voters could only vote in one party’s primary, the top vote-getter in every party advanced to the general election. That means in this scenario, under the Montana system, four candidates would advance to the general election where voters would pick from among four people.

However, that is not so with the much ballyhooed “top two” primary. Using the same scenario of two candidates for each party so that there are eight choices in the primary, only the top two vote-getters will advance to the general election. And, depending upon who the top two are, the choice will be between either two candidates of the same party or two candidates from two of the four parties. So, the choices for the general election have been reduced from four to two. This is better?

What makes this even less appealing is that historically, the primaries draw far fewer participants than the general election. So, even fewer people are going to determine who gets an office than before.

Of course, one could hope that this might actually encourage people to pay attention to the primary since that is really where things will be decided. But, given that Washington state’s state primary is now in August, a time of the year when many are enjoying the summer, how likely is it that people will be paying attention? It was hard enough to get people to surface in September after school started, so it will be interesting to see if people will be any more engaged now that they do not have to pick a party for voting.

It also will be interesting to see over time how happy voters in Washington state will be with the far more restricted choices that the “top two” primary brings. To get freedom of choice in the primary, choices have been lost in the general election. That does not seem like a good trade-off for people who want it all.

Val Torrens appears Wednesdays in the CK Reporter.

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