Thursday, September 16, 2021
Sept. 16, 2021

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In Our View: Washington Matters, Too

Moving our state's presidential primary to March 8 would have given us more of a say

The Columbian

Are you following the 2016 presidential campaigns? Would Donald Trump be a breath of fresh air, or is he just full of hot air? Did you squeeze into that Bernie Sanders rally over at the Moda Center?

Wait a minute. We live in Washington. For most of us, our opinions on the various presidential candidates don’t matter. And last week, a state committee made sure that they won’t, at least in the 2016 presidential election.

By refusing to move our primary from May 24 to March 8, the Presidential Primary Date Selection Committee all but ensured Washington voters will be stuck with merely endorsing the front-runners of both major parties. If we do manage to get a say, it will be clubby insiders who do the talking.

In effect, our state, which ranks 13th largest in population and economic output, relies on tiny places like New Hampshire (the 42nd largest state!) to choose the finalists for the world’s most important job.

Here’s a little history. For decades, Washington has held caucuses sponsored by political parties. On a certain date, which next year will be Saturday, March 5, for Republicans and March 26 for Democrats, neighbors gather by precinct and party to talk about candidates and issues, and select delegates to political conventions. Perhaps there’s a little flavor of community there, but it’s quickly diluted by the charms of sitting on a folding chair in a school cafeteria while strangers expound upon their political beliefs. No wonder attendance at these caucuses tends to be about 3 percent of all voters. What you end up with is a closed club of partisans.

So in 1989, voters approved holding a presidential primary election. In 2008, about 1.5 million people voted in the primary, compared with 300,000 who attended one of the party caucuses.

Admittedly, the primary tends to be a bit of a beauty contest; the parties still hold their caucuses and nothing in the law requires them to consider the presidential primary results when allocating delegates to their nominating conventions.

That loophole, plus the cost, were the main reasons the election was canceled in 2012. However, this year about $11.5 million was set aside in the state budget for a 2016 presidential primary. But by May 24 will anyone care? The real business of deciding major party nominees is generally decided by the time the tulips bloom.

Realizing this, state Republicans proposed a March 8 primary, which is only one week after Super Tuesday. It’s conceivable the GOP nomination could still be in play then. Hey, suddenly we’d be relevant! Candidates would visit our state, maybe even Vancouver, to hear our issues and meet our people.

Now that is unlikely to happen. Democrats on the primary date selection committee refused to move the date. Party Chairman Jaxon Ravens called the primary a meaningless straw poll that won’t affect how Democrats choose their delegates to the national nominating convention. The Democrats also think a primary election would be confusing to voters, a view not shared by the Republicans.

It’s time to shift the conversation. Maybe the selection of delegates shouldn’t be reserved for political insiders. Wouldn’t democracy be better served by making it easier for voters to participate?

The other alternative for us is continued voter apathy and suspicion that no one whose name will appear on the November 2016 presidential ballot will know or care about Evergreen State issues.