Callaghan: Holding primary elections earlier is secondary issue

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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Today's column is another three-for-one special.

June primary? — Recently, I wrote about the near-record low turnout for the Aug. 7 primary election. Just 38.48 percent of Washington state registered voters returned ballots. That is well below the 43 percent average for primaries in gubernatorial election years. State election staffers went back to 1980 and couldn't find a year with a lower turnout.

Before sending ballots out, state and local elections officials looked at the races, compared this election with similar primaries in the past and came out with predictions ranging from 46 percent to 52 percent. Using past elections to predict the future was made more difficult because Washington had never held a primary so early in the summer. Two years ago, it was on the third Tuesday in August. Before that, it was on the third Tuesday of September.

So was it the date that drove down turnout? Good weather and summer vacations, combined with the early date, may have made voters less interested. That led some to suggest holding the primary before summer kicks in (it can't move into September because federal law requires more time after the primary to get general election ballots to and from soldiers overseas).

Early June was the consensus among Secretary of State Sam Reed and the county auditors. And a key legislator thinks late May would be the best time for a primary. But Rep. Sam Hunt, the Olympia Democrat who is chairman of the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee, said he doubts he can get much support for either change.

"The big problem for legislators with earlier primary dates is the freeze on campaign donations before and during session — something most other states do not have," Hunt wrote. The freeze period refers to the ban on fundraising by incumbents while the Legislature is in session, as well as 30 days prior to a regular session.

In even-numbered years such as this one, the regular session ends by mid-March. But special sessions have been common lately, pushing the ban later into the spring. "It would be difficult as a candidate to not be able to raise money from December through at least April and then face a May or early June primary election," Hunt wrote.

Intramural elections — Critics of the state's top two primary think its major flaw is that in some districts voters don't have the traditional choice between a Democrat and a Republican in the general election. That's because the primary, a direct result of the parties' successful lawsuit against the old blanket primary, rewards the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party preference.

Rather than being a flaw, I think that is the best feature of top two. Rather than have a sacrificial candidate from the disadvantaged party give voters the appearance of choice, the finalists in same-party runoffs often present real differences in beliefs. This Nov. 6, 14 legislative races will have candidates from the same party, spread out over 10 of the state's 49 districts. Of those, seven are Republican vs. Republican finals and seven are Democrat vs. Democrat. And, as expected, all are in districts that have been drawn to strongly favor that party.

Exaggerated power — It's one of my pet peeves, the assertion by many people who run for state attorney general that they will be the state's top cop. But Washington's attorney general has very little authority to prosecute crime. That is left to county prosecutors. Instead, the AG's office is mostly a civil law office, representing state elected officials and state agencies, providing consumer and anti-trust protection, and enforcing state laws and rules primarily in civil court, not criminal court. Only a handful of the more than 500 assistant attorneys general practice in criminal court, mostly in areas such as Medicaid fraud. And only one is a criminal prosecutor in the traditional sense.

Even though it's more accurate, saying you're the toughest civil lawyer in town must not be as much fun and apparently doesn't resonate as loudly with voters.