Too often overlooked in our frequent praise of Washington’s top two primary is an exception that on closer examination is revealed as a glaring flaw that should be fixed. Thankfully, with strong bipartisan support of legislators, that reform is just the governor’s signature away from reality.As voters have come to appreciate, the top two primary advances the top two vote-getters to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Exceptions include several nonpartisan statewide races, mostly judicial (Washington Supreme Court, Appeals Court, Superior Court) but also the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. In these races, any candidate receiving a majority of the votes in the primary wins. (Technically, only his or her name appears on the general election ballot.)
These exceptions undermine the intent of the top two primary. Fortunately, legislators recently fixed the flaw (97-0 in the House, 37-9 in the Senate) and, pending the governor’s expected signature, those offices will be decided in the general election. The lone local legislator to oppose the measure was state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver.
The bill does not affect a few local races that are decided in the primary, as dictated by bizarre and complicated technicalities including whether two or more candidates are involved, whether the primary is in an odd- or even-numbered year (don’t ask us to explain that one) and whether a local population is more than or less than 100,000.
But the changes in statewide offices are welcome, for several reasons. Chief among these is the expectations of the voters, who properly assume the top two primary is a winnowing system and not a decisive event. That’s why we never refer to it as an “election,” always only as a “primary.” For those voters to learn — in many cases after the primary — that a winner is chosen in the primary is to foist upon them an unreasonable surprise.
The second reason pertains to voter turnout, which in the primary is typically about half of the crowd that shows up for the general election. We agree with this passage in House Bill 1474 Report: “Judges should be elected by the largest number of people participating in an election. … The larger pool of voters should be the ones who vote for those candidates.” How could any voter — or candidate — possibly disagree with that logic? We can’t imagine.
The third reason involves public awareness. Many voters don’t bother to learn about candidates until after the primary. And the Yakima Herald-Republic points to this troubling reflection: “In 2012, budget issues forced the Secretary of State’s office to suspend printing and mailing its primary voting guide, a key source of information for many voters, and there is no guarantee that funding will be restored for future years.”
There are critics of the reform. Some, Cleveland among them, complain that lower court judges lose time away from the bench if they have to campaign in both the primary and general election, and extending these electoral choices into the fall costs money. Those reasons aren’t compelling, and we join the vast majority of legislators who believe all election races should be decided — not so strangely — on election day.