Editorials

Why should Washington be irrelevant in 2020? Legislature must seize last chance to move presidential primary

Just one of these 2016 Republican presidential candidates (Donald Trump, of course) was still standing by the time Washingtonians voted in that year’s presidential primary election. The others (from left, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson) had dropped out. Here, they take the stage at a debate in South Carolina before that state’s February primary.
Just one of these 2016 Republican presidential candidates (Donald Trump, of course) was still standing by the time Washingtonians voted in that year’s presidential primary election. The others (from left, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson) had dropped out. Here, they take the stage at a debate in South Carolina before that state’s February primary. AP

Is it too early to talk about the 2020 presidential primaries? Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman doesn’t think so, and neither do we. Not with President Trump nearly halfway through his jaw-dropping first term, and a crop of Democratic challengers that will soon spring up to try and keep him from a second.

When legislators convene in Olympia next month, Wyman will try to convince them to move Washington’s quadrennial primary from the fourth Tuesday in May to the second Tuesday in March, or possibly join other West Coast states on an alternate date in early March.

For voters, it’s like being bumped up from the back of the balcony to the middle of the main floor for what will not only be the greatest show on earth, but also an election fraught with generational significance.

Tired of Washington being an afterthought on the presidential campaign circuit, Wyman believes an earlier 2020 primary would poise the state for real political impact, she said in a meeting with our Editorial Board last week.

Wyman talks with scores of voters across the state and hears their complaints; for many, participating in a late May presidential primary feels like an exercise in “why bother?” Those same feelings apply to presidential campaigns as they divide time and resources among the 50 states.

If the secretary of state’s proposal sounds familiar, it’s because she pitched it to lawmakers last year. Persuading them could be tougher now that Wyman, a Republican, faces a Legislature with newly padded Democratic majorities. And Dems historically have favored the archaic and elitist caucus system for choosing presidential nominees.

But she should push her proposal again in 2019, even harder. By the time May 26, 2020, rolls around and Washington voters finally get a say, the candidate field will have thinned and the parties’ presidential nominees will mostly be a done deal. In 2016, all Republican candidates except Trump had withdrawn from the race by the time Washington voted.

Moving the primary to early March might mean Washington could take part in a West Coast Super Tuesday, which could include some combination of Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah.

California lawmakers set a positive trend last year by moving their presidential primary up three months.

Just think, presidential candidates would have to burn a calorie or two courting Washington voters, talking about issues we value most, including the environment and Pacific Rim trade. The days of drive-by campaigning would be over.

The main wrench to be thrown at this sensible idea would likely come from Democrats who’ve become too attached to their precinct caucuses.

We appreciate the nostalgic appeal of neighbors talking among themselves in crowded middle school gyms. But here in the 21st century, caucuses leave out too many citizens, who, for a myriad reasons involving jobs or family obligations, can’t hang around for hours to say “yea” or “nay” in person.

(In 2016, Tacoma’s 27th District Democrats caucused for an exhausting 12 hours.)

More than 800,000 Democrats cast ballots for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in Washington’s 2016 presidential primary, compared to about 230,000 who attended caucuses. Those aren’t tea leaves; they’re participation numbers telling you it’s time to let go.

The fact that Washington’s Democratic Party doesn’t count primary votes in the nomination process makes the whole exercise pretty futile. Wyman calls the caucus system “the greatest act of voter suppression,” and we’re hard pressed to argue. The Dems need to follow the GOP and apportion convention delegates in line with primary results.

Wyman has another proposal to shake up the presidential primaries, and that’s to give unaffiliated voters a chance to participate. Under current law, voters must declare a party or they’re shut out. Her change would also allow Democrats and Republicans to keep their party preference private, if they wish.

This strikes us as an idea worth a closer look in Olympia, but not if it slows the momentum of simply moving up the primary date by a couple of calendar pages. That should be priority No. 1.

The 2016 presidential primary cost Washington voters $12 million. The next one will cost even more, as the number of registered voters grows. What’s the point of paying so much for a balcony ticket that doesn’t gain admittance until after intermission?

This is Wyman’s last chance to inject relevance into our state’s 2020 presidential primary, and we wish her Godspeed.

  Comments