The Senate Ways and Means Committee will take up a bill Thursday that would cancel the 2012 presidential primary to save the state $10 million in election costs.
Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees elections law, introduced Senate Bill 5119 at the request of Gov. Chris Gregoire and Secretary of State Sam Reed. The bill advanced to Ways and Means Jan. 24 with a “do pass” recommendation.
But Pridemore says he’s philosophically opposed to doing away with the presidential primary and leaving it to local party caucuses to select delegates to national conventions.
“I like the presidential primary and I wish that would be the sole way we nominate candidates,” he said.
Instead, it’s largely irrelevant. Neither major political party relies on the Washington presidential primary to choose its delegates to the national conventions. In 2008, the state Democratic Party ignored the election’s result and chose its delegates in local caucus meetings. The Republican Party chose a portion of its delegates in local caucuses and the rest through the presidential primary.
“In the current budget situation, I have a difficult time supporting a political primary that the political parties are not going to use,” Pridemore said Tuesday. “That troubles me.”
Surprisingly, Reed, the state’s top election official, agrees.
“I was dragged kicking and screaming into this,” he said. He noted that he fought a similar proposal in 2007 to cancel the 2008 presidential primary. He agreed to support this year’s version, he said, “purely for budgetary reasons.”
“If the parties were willing to use the presidential primaries 100 percent, I wouldn’t even think of this,” he said. “But the fact is that it ended up being a beauty contest for the Democrats, and the Republicans used it for only 50 percent of their delegates.”
Reed said his office budget “has just been hammered” in this year’s round of budget cuts and there was no place else to make a such a large cut.
In fact, Washington’s presidential primary has been an awkward fit since the state adopted the top two primary system in 2008. The new system, which is still being litigated by both major political parties, left party leaders powerless to hand-pick their nominees for state and local offices. Under the new system, the top two vote-getters in the August primary advance to the November general election regardless of party.
Partisan by definition
The presidential primary is different. By definition, it’s partisan, Reed said.
“Because the primaries and caucuses lead to national conventions, the courts have ruled that therefore the parties’ rules can govern what is permissible,” he said. “The party rules are quite strict. (Party leaders) only want people who are involved in the party. You have to pick a ballot and a record is kept.”
In 2008, about 1.4 million Washington voters took part in the presidential primary, a record turnout driven in part by surging grass-roots support for Barack Obama. In contrast, between 60,000 and 100,000 people participated in local party caucuses.
Canceling the 2012 primary would disenfranchise some voters, as Reed acknowledged. Those would include members of the military deployed overseas, the disabled, and others who are unable to attend party caucuses.
Tom Niewulis Jr., an organizer of the Clark County Tea Party movement, testified in Olympia against canceling the 2012 primary.
“The caucus works to an extent but it doesn’t give all citizens full participation in the primaries,” he said in an interview.
“We saw a large turnout” in 2008, he said. Locally, supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican with strong Libertarian leanings, flooded some GOP caucus meetings and elected delegates pledged to support Paul at the GOP convention.
“But when we look at other years, we see that caucus turnout is low,” Niewulis said. “If you don’t have another means to bring people into the process, that means we aren’t being fully represented.”
A recent U.S. District Court ruling added another wrinkle to the debate when it threw out the state’s decision to elect party precinct committee officers in the top two primary. Because PCOs are creatures of the political parties, “the fix being debated is to have the PCOs elected on the same ballot as the presidential primary,” said David Ammons, Reed’s spokesman.
But canceling the 2012 president primary would leave that solution in limbo, Ammons concedes.
It’s likely that SB 5119 will move forward despite these problems. Pridemore’s own reservations are based in part on his experience with the party caucus system.
“Back in 2000, I was the precinct chair for six different caucuses,” he said. “I was the only person who showed up.”