Party loyalty trumped public service in the Legislature Monday when lawmakers approved what voters should see as an abuse of the state election system, an abuse that had been ruled unconstitutional by a U.S. District judge. Only four state senators and one state representative (none from Clark County, sadly) were courageous enough to oppose House Bill 1860, which forces the public to pay for the election of precinct committee officers (PCOs). In other words, the political parties get to conduct their private business on the public’s dime.PCOs are leaders of both political parties who direct operations in the state’s 6,500 precincts (194 in Clark County). With two parties, that means about 13,000 PCOs statewide and 388 here locally. As we reported in a Jan. 4 editorial, using the same formula for distribution of election costs that is used for other jurisdictions, the two local political parties would’ve been charged a combined $53,000 for election services in 2010.
But unlike other public entities such as cities, counties, school districts, ports, utility districts and others that pay for election services political parties get to elect their PCOs at no charge to the parties. Or, as The Seattle Times opined this week, the political parties “are freeloaders a particularly odious fact considering the cash-strapped state of county coffers these days.”
Last year in Seattle, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour ruled against this blatant preferential treatment in local elections. Unlike the judge, though, legislators owe allegiance to the political parties, thus their shameful willingness on Monday to legislate against the federal judge, against common sense, and against the best interests of the voters who sent them to Olympia.
You can expect the legislators to crow, “Oh, but we significantly reduced the costs and the demands of PCO elections on local elections officials.” This is the equivalent of boasting that you decided to reduce the severity of your misdeed. Indeed, according to HB 1860, only contested PCO races will appear on the primary ballot in even-numbered years, and write-in candidates are not allowed. The secretary of state’s office reports that, typically, only about 3 percent of the PCO races statewide are contested (that percentage was slightly higher in Clark County in 2010), and 32 percent statewide have one candidate filed and 65 percent have no candidates filed.
But those numbers don’t change the principle: The parties should pay for their PCO elections. In fact, if only 3 percent of PCO races are contested, we wonder what the political parties were squawking about in the first place.
One of the best arguments against this free ride actually came from the party big shots themselves, back when the top two primary was approved by everyone from the U.S. Supreme Court to the overwhelming majority of voters of both parties. Back then, the political parties’ argument against the top two primary (top two vote-getters advance, regardless of party) was: How dare you deny us our freedom to associate as we see fit?” Yet when it comes to paying for elections, party officials are quick to set aside their privacy rights and refuse to pay for their PCO elections.
This makes no sense, and when we said so in an editorial two months ago, complaints arrived from leaders of both political parties. No ordinary folks complained. No grass-roots voters were upset. Just the party leaders. Obviously, they found sympathetic ears among the politicians in the Legislature.