In our view: Not on Public’s Dime

Political parties are private groups; let them conduct and pay for their own elections

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Imagine a private organization — a classic-car club or the rose pruners’ auxiliary — demanding that the public pay for the election of its officers. That proposal would be met with laughter, derision and rejection. And rightly so. If unofficial groups want to elect officers, fine. Have at it. Just not on the public dime.

Clearly, political parties are private organizations; their employees and volunteers are not public officials. So it makes perfect sense for the parties to conduct — and pay for — the election of precinct committee officers. That’s the current system, although for many years precinct committee officers were chosen in public elections.

On Dec. 22, leaders of the state Democratic and Republican parties filed a joint lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court challenging the state’s decision to halt publicly funded election of precinct committee officers. The case is scheduled to be heard on March 23. We will understand if the court refrains from laughter and derision, but rejection should be swift and complete.

This lawsuit is drenched in amusing irony. Remember when the two parties were complaining about the shift to the top two primary, which voters in both parties happen to adore? During that argument, party officials huffed excitedly: How dare you interfere with our right to associate? (By the way, the top two primary does nothing of the sort. Instead of a party nomination process, it’s a winnowing process that defines the voters’ top two favorites, regardless of party affiliation). As the parties’ argument continued, and to that end, about a year ago Judge John Coughenour of the U.S. District Court in Seattle ruled that “electing political-party precinct committee officers is unconstitutional because it allows nonparty members to vote for officers of the political parties.” That was a good call by the judge.

Then about a year later, here come the party leaders, demanding public elections that the federal judge said are unconstitutional! It’s almost as humorous as it is preposterous!

Furthermore, precinct committee officers offer little benefit to the general public. Their functions include conducting precinct caucuses, distributing partisan campaign material and encouraging voter turnout.

In fact, The Olympian newspaper recently reported statistics showing that many precinct committee officer elections are irrelevant. Almost two-thirds of the state’s 12,250 precinct committee officer positions up for election in 2010 didn’t draw a single candidate. “So we are holding elections for races that don’t exist,” The Olympian concluded. Also, 32.3 percent of the positions had just one candidate, which means only 2.5 percent of the state’s precinct committee officer elections were even contested. So, in addition to these races being for private and not public office, few people even want to serve in the office.

Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey said Tuesday that local statistics were similar to what’s seen statewide. There are 194 precincts in the county. If the current system had been in place in 2010 — and using the same formula for distribution of election costs that is used for other jurisdictions — the two political parties in Clark County would’ve been charged a combined $53,000, Kimsey said.

In filing their lawsuit on Dec. 22, party leaders argued that precinct committee officers were chosen in public elections for more than a century. True, but when the state went to the top two primary, the system was affirmed as belonging to the people and not to the parties. Also, county auditors statewide oppose public election of precinct committee officers.

Washingtonians are claiming ownership of their elections, as events of the people instead of events of the parties. Party leaders might not like it, but the people love it, for good reason.