Washington’s quandary over presidential primaries points out the absurdities in the system for selecting candidates for the nation’s highest office. But, alas, there are no easy solutions for improving an outdated system that varies from state to state.
In 2004 and 2012, Washington went so far as to cancel its presidential primaries, lest we spend time and money on balloting that would have no impact on national results. With the state traditionally holding its primary late in the process, the presidential nominees typically are in place by the time voters here have an opportunity to weigh in. For us, it has been more sensible to stay on the sidelines rather than take the field after the contest has been decided.
Now, Secretary of State Kim Wyman is hoping to get Washingtonians in the game. She is supporting legislation (Senate Bill 5978 and House Bill 2139) that would have the state holding a primary during the run-up to the 2016 election. The question remains, however, about how to make Washington votes relevant to the process.
Central to the issue is the fact that this state conducts elections in a top-two format, with candidates from all political parties appearing on the ballot during the primary. The parties, accustomed to owning entrenched power in the process, don’t like this system, and they fought feckless legal battles to prevent it. When it comes to a presidential primary, the battles undoubtedly would be rekindled. For the parties, having a closed primary in which voters declare party allegiance would be beneficial; it would provide them with a list of potential donors and voters ripe for the targeting.
Wyman’s proposed legislation would conduct presidential primaries either through traditional closed-party balloting or through the one-ballot system. It would have the parties decide between the two, but would require them to follow the results of a closed ballot in choosing delegates to the national conventions if that system is selected. The carrot and the stick, if you will.
While Wyman properly is looking for a way to get Washington voters into the game, the shortcomings of the primary system are well beyond our reach. Take Iowa, for example. By having caucuses — rather than primaries — and by placing them at the front of the election calendar, the nation’s 30th-most populous state garners an inordinate amount of attention and carries an inordinate amount of weight when it comes to choosing presidential candidates. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom would have us believe, given the breathless media coverage devoted to the Iowa caucuses. But in 2012, Rick Santorum won the Iowa Republican caucus and then was little heard from again. Same for Mike Huckabee in 2008.
Then there is New Hampshire, which conducts the nation’s first primary each election cycle. In 2008, Hillary Clinton won the primary in that state and still went on to fall well short of her party’s nomination.
Ideally, the nominating process across the country would be brought into the 21st century. All states should have primaries, rather than caucuses, and those primaries should be bunched together over a three- or four-week span in the spring, with each state selecting convention delegates that reflect the will of the voters. Put the power in the hands of the people and remove it from the antiquated clutches of old-time party politics.
All of that is beyond the purview of Washington. For our purposes, Wyman is wise to work for the benefit of Washington voters; the system, however, presents a daunting challenge.