Callaghan: Education the primary reason for a voters' pamphlet

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 

Be wary of budget-cutting moves made by politicians that just happen to boost the political fortunes of those same politicians. One is legislators' reluctance to pay for a voters' pamphlet for primary elections.

Only twice since the popular general election guides debuted decades ago has the Legislature sprung for an edition to help voters sort through the choices in the primary, said Secretary of State Sam Reed. In 2000, the state budget office allowed then-Secretary of State Ralph Munro to use some unspent cash set aside for elections. Then, in 2008, Reed convinced the Legislature that confusion caused by yet another change in the primary rules -- the first use of the "top two" primary -- made a primary pamphlet a good idea.

Reed didn't even ask for funding this year. "I believe in not fighting a fight unless there's a remote chance of winning," he said. "I couldn't get them to do it when times were flush."

Yet a case could be made -- OK, I'll make it -- that a pamphlet is even more important in the primary than in the November general election. That's because the number of choices is larger in the August (formerly September) primary. There has also been less opportunity for campaigning and for voters to separate the shells from the nuts.

Big counties like King, Pierce and Thurston (and Clark, for local and regional races) publish primary pamphlets. "We feel like it is really important information that our local voters really want," said Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson. Some counties are responding to budget pressures by eliminating the local pamphlet, though. That's what Thurston County has done; Yakima, too.

Reed says his office posts information about candidates on its website (sos.wa.gov/elections). But I find the online version awkward to navigate and less amenable to contrasting candidates for the same office.

Incumbent protection

Perhaps for obvious reasons, a lot of the more interesting candidates are gone by the time the general election pamphlet is published. The primary is the only time the Libertarians, the Greens, the Socialists and -- my favorite -- the Natural Law Party get exposure. "Cultivating spontaneous self-governance in accord with natural law will make us all, and our communities, crime-free, stress-free, productive, peaceful, and happy," wrote the Natural Law candidate for attorney general in 2000. And somehow she lost?

Minor party adherents complain that the top two primary makes it impossible to get to the general election. Under the old blanket primary, they needed only 1 percent of the vote to reach the general election. That's how the state's most-famous minor party was able to turn the 1976 pamphlet into a collectors item. That would be the O.W.L Party led by jazz musician Red Kelly for governor, "Bunco" Bob Kelly for attorney general and Archie "Whiplash" Breslin for insurance commissioner.

Now third parties have to get the most or the second-most votes, a tough task made even tougher by the lack of a primary pamphlet.

Then there are the perennial candidates like Goodspaceguy, Mike the Mover, Jesse Hill, Will Baker, Warren "The Viking" Hanson. Would we have more of these if they were certain to get their message into the homes of every voter? Probably, but they make the pamphlet a lot more fun.

Besides, more information is always better than less information. And who benefits most by the lack of a published voters' pamphlet? Candidates who already are well-known, who don't need the help of the pamphlet to get their names before voters. And who are targeted in the pamphlet statements by those lesser-known challengers? That would be the incumbents, the sitting legislators who could have pushed for the $1 million needed to put a printed pamphlet in every household of the state. So maybe it was to save money. But maybe it was yet-another example of incumbent protection.