Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Further proof that the August primary isn’t working

Statewide, voter turnout fo rthe August primary is currently hovering around 33 percent. In Pierce County, the number is just above 30 percent. In Franklin and Yakima counties, it’s closer to 27 percent.
Statewide, voter turnout fo rthe August primary is currently hovering around 33 percent. In Pierce County, the number is just above 30 percent. In Franklin and Yakima counties, it’s closer to 27 percent. Staff file, 2013

Just moments before the deadline, we pulled over to the side of the road and pulled out our blue pens.

It was time to cast our votes, before it was too late.

My wife hurriedly thumbed through the primary election voter guide, quickly researching the background of judicial candidates for those difficult last-minute decisions. Meanwhile, I tried to connect the arrows on my ballot as neatly as possible, using the center console in the minivan to write on.

In the back seat, the kids squirmed — the importance of democratic participation obviously lost on them. It was summer, after all, and there were surely better things we could be doing with our time.

The kids, in this case, had a point.

It was 2007 when Washington first held its primary election in August instead of September. The move was led by then Secretary of State Sam Reed and county auditors, who argued that the small window between the old mid-September primary and the November general election didn’t allow enough time for things like the certification of close elections and the need to get out general election ballots.

At the time, Reed called the tight window a “train wreck waiting to happen.”

Like my kids in the back seat last week, Reed had a point. The turnaround between the old September primary and the November general election was fraught with potential electoral peril, especially given the need to process military and overseas ballots.

But it’s also clear that the first-Tuesday-of-August compromise we settled on by 2012 — enough time to ensure election workers can work their magic, but not so early that incumbent candidates have their fundraising abilities crimped — isn’t working.

Not even close.

July and August are our nicest months of the year, in the summer. Washingtonians, all of us, we love to go outside and enjoy the Puget Sound. To a lot of people, politics are the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Ron Dotzauer

“July and August are our nicest months of the year, in the summer. Washingtonians, all of us, we love to go outside and enjoy the Puget Sound. To a lot of people, politics are the farthest thing from anyone’s mind,” one-time Clark County auditor and longtime local political strategist Ron Dotzauer told me by phone last week.

Dotzauer admitted that it took him longer than usual to get back to me because he’d spent the previous day out on his boat.

Exactly.

“We’re asking people to focus,” Dotzauer continued. “It’s just silliness.”

Last week’s primary provided the latest evidence of this silliness. Statewide, voter turnout is currently hovering around 33 percent. In Pierce County, the number is just above 30 percent. In Franklin and Yakima counties, it’s closer to 27 percent.

That’s not good.

Or, as Dotzauer said, “It’s abysmal.”

But, this year, low turnout isn’t the only indication of a sputtering system.

Take the race in Washington’s 8th Congressional District, where former sportscaster Tony Ventrella filed as a Democrat to challenge incumbent Republican Dave Reichert. Ventrella, who had visions of an idealistic run and refused to solicit campaign donations, bagged out of the race back on June 30, throwing his support behind the two Democrats in the race who were, you know, actually campaigning: Santiago Ramos and Alida Skold.

The only problem? Because his decision came late in the game, Ventrella’s well-known name was still on the ballot. And because voters paid so little attention to the race, he received 17 percent of the vote — some 21,000 people — and placed second behind Reichert.

Ventrella now reluctantly moves on to the general election in November.

In lieu of, again, actually campaigning, Ventrella is urging supporters to donate money to a nonprofit of their choice

That’s admirable, but the whole situation serves to highlight how misguided an early August primary is. Ventrella has promised to serve if he somehow manages to best Reichert, but there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening, and the good people of the 8th District get robbed of their democratic process along the way.

How do we start to fix this mess? It’s complicated and easy, all at the same time. Dotzauer advocates either pushing the primary back until after Labor Day, or the solution Reed originally pushed for — one that current Secretary of State Kim Wyman also supports.

Hold the primary earlier in the year.

Oregon and California have both figured out how to make early primaries work, and there’s no reason Washington can’t follow this lead. While it shouldn’t be mistaken for a foolproof panacea for lackluster voter engagement, it surely can’t hurt.

David Ammons, Wyman’s spokesman, said last week that talk of moving the primary to an earlier date comes up like clockwork in Olympia. He expects the same thing to happen again next session.

I imagine that it will come up again. It’s a perennial discussion.

Secretary of State spokesman David Ammons

And he expects it to go about as far as it always does: nowhere.

While there’s some hesitancy to extend the campaign season, that’s largely because of the voter-approved legislative fundraising freeze, which prohibits legislators and state officials from accepting campaign cash from 30 days before the session starts until the moment it concludes.

As the law currently stands, for legislators, a vote to move the primary date earlier in the year would amount to what Ammons describes as, “Voting against their own interest.”

Perhaps that’s true, but let’s not pretend this is an insurmountable problem. Just like the primary date, the rules around the fundraising freeze can be tweaked too — transparently and with fairness in mind. “It would be hard to support that, even if you’re doing another thing that you think people would like,” Ammons said of the political prospects.

Sure, but, again, other states have figured out a way to make early primaries work.

Because one has to wonder: Is an August turnout this low in anyone’s best interest?

  Comments