State lawmakers are considering an earlier presidential primary in the hopes of making Washington votes more relevant.
Senate Bill 5333, approved by the Senate this week, would move the primary to the second Tuesday in March, about five weeks after the country’s first presidential nominating contest, the Iowa caucus.
David Elliott, policy director for the Secretary of State’s office that requested the change, said an earlier primary would encourage presidential candidates to visit Washington more and learn about issues unique to the state.
Under current state law, Washington’s presidential primary is the fourth Tuesday in May. By that date last year, Hillary Clinton was the clear Democratic front-runner and only one Republican candidate — Donald Trump — was left in the race.
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Ballots told a different story, one of a wide-open GOP race. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had suspended their campaigns before the election, but after ballots were printed. And Ben Carson’s name also appeared on the ballot because he didn’t file the paperwork to remove it.
“By late May, it was well-known by everyone that Trump and Clinton were going to win the nomination,” said Brian Zylstra, deputy communications director for the Secretary of State. “It was pretty much a foregone conclusion.”
The bill also would make a couple of other changes. It strikes the requirement that primary ballots include a blank space to allow write-ins, which sponsor Sen. Mark Miloscia said have “zero effect” on the outcome but cause ballot-counting problems for elections officials. And it would allow voters to cast a ballot without affiliating with a party.
The Secretary of State would report totals separately for voters who decided against signing the oath, and it would be up to the parties to decide how to use the results.
Miloscia, R-Federal Way, said removing the oath requirement would empower voters over parties.
“The time is right now to reject the old philosophy of having party insiders control the nominees,” he said.
Party leaders are not as fond of the proposed change.
Susan Hutchison, who chairs the state Republican Party, said making the primary earlier is a “terrific idea” and she supports removing write-in spaces from the primary ballot. But she opposes allowing voters to remain unaffiliated in the presidential primary.
“The primary process is a time in which people who are a part of a party get to select their party’s nominee,” Hutchison said. “Unaffiliated voters get to be unaffiliated when they vote in November.”
Alex Bond, spokesman for the Washington State Democratic Party, said his party has a similar outlook.
“Members of the Democratic Party should be choosing the Democratic nominee, and members of the Republican Party should be choosing the Republican nominee,” he said.
The state Democratic Party hasn’t taken a position on an earlier primary. Unlike Republicans, who use the primary results to allocate delegates, the Democratic Party relies on the caucus system to allocate delegates. (That choice last year led to the state’s delegates being pledged to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, even though Clinton got the most votes in the state’s presidential primary.)
Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, voted against the bill in the Senate because of the section allowing voters to remain unaffiliated. He said it would be unfair to allow members of opposing parties to attempt to influence each others' nominating processes.
But he sees value in an earlier primary — and hopes Idaho and Oregon do the same to create a regional draw for candidates.
Forrest Holt: 360-943-7240