Washington residents are known as a courteous bunch who let others go first, yielding the right of way with a polite wave. This reputation even inspired a clever insurance company ad a few years ago.
A similar deference defines Washington’s presidential preference primary election, although it makes little sense. This year’s primary is set for May 24 – a full 16 weeks after Iowa gets to shape the presidential race with its caucuses on Monday, and 15 weeks after New Hampshire opens the national primary season on Feb. 9.
There are 40 states that hold presidential primaries, and Washington will wave graciously at 34 of them before its voters have a voice in the quadrennial sweepstakes.
Move on through, Utah and Nebraska. Go right ahead, Idaho and Oregon. Don’t let your Northwest neighbor get in the way.
Washington voters should feel especially frustrated this year because as winter turns to spring, the long stretch of primaries will have more clout than usual. But can an election on the Tuesday before Memorial Day have much influence? Don’t hold your breath.
Perhaps the extraordinarily unsettled field of Republican candidates, combined with a Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders matchup that may go several rounds, will finally persuade state lawmakers to move from the back of the line in 2020. (It’s too late to change this year’s date.)
Political leaders also should make the primary mean something for citizens of both parties, or no party. It’s costing taxpayers $11.5 million this year, so it should matter more than it does.
Washington Republicans traditionally use primary results to pledge convention delegates who help pick the GOP nominee for president. Republicans will apportion all their delegates this way in 2016.
State Democrat honchos, however, keep trotting out a precinct caucus system that rewards insiders, squatters and hardcore politicos who can afford to sit for hours in a room on March 26. The party doesn’t use the primary to pledge any delegates, so rank-and-file Dems have no reason to vote unless they enjoy beauty contests – or aspire to play saboteur by voting for the worst Republican.
Unaffiliated voters are the biggest losers under the closed primary system. All voters are required to sign a loyalty oath to a party before casting a ballot, leaving unaffiliateds out in the cold unless they don’t mind lying and landing on a party mailing list.
Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson says that’s a raw deal. “I think people will be upset about it again,” she told The News Tribune editorial board last week.
Anderson urges citizens to consider their options before the primary arrives, and to weigh the opportunities against the consequences of voting. She acknowledges Pierce County voters could get away with “lying their pants off” about party affiliation because her staff won’t try to validate their oath.
Her words underscore just how absurd Washington’s delegate-selection process has become. Among other problems, there’s no predictability to the calendar. The 1989 Legislature adopted a primary, and then-Secretary of State Ralph Munro picked the third Tuesday in May as the default date. But the 2008 primary was held in February, and the 2012 primary was canceled to save money.
Munro’s late-May date wasn’t a bad idea at the time. Oregon’s primary fell on the same date, and Munro hoped other Western states would join them, creating a “Super Tuesday”-like effect. Candidates would have to pay heed to this corner of the country for more than fundraising.
When that didn’t happen and Munro saw the continued frontloading of the national primary calendar, he lobbied for the default primary date to move to the second Tuesday in March.
Two decades later, voters are still waiting.
Current Secretary of State Kim Wyman pushed for a bill last year that sought to move the 2016 primary to March 8. Her legislation had other elements to make the parties take the primary more seriously.
If they would finally make this common-sense calendar fix, March 10, 2020 will be a super Tuesday for Washingtonians, indeed.