Lawmakers in Olympia appear intent this year on increasing Washington’s role in the presidential selection process. But as they consider moving the date of the state’s presidential primary, they also should provide a role for voters who do not wish to declare a party preference.
The state Senate last week approved a bill (SB 5273) that would move Washington’s presidential primary from May to the second Tuesday in March. A companion bill is in committee in the House of Representatives. Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, and Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, are among the co-sponsors of the respective bills.
Proposals to adjust the date of the primary should garner broad support. Washington’s May primary has muted the voice of voters, with the election arriving late in the nominating process and typically coming after the nominations are foregone conclusions. Caucuses are held early in the process, but they invariably are less inclusive than primaries. “I am grateful to the Senate for passing this bill to give Washingtonians a greater voice in how our nation is governed,” said Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who long has advocated for moving the primary up on the calendar.
Washington is the nation’s 13th most populous state, and presidential wannabes should be compelled to provide attention to issues of concern to this corner of the country. Pacific Rim trade, the Columbia River Treaty and the cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are unlikely to receive much attention in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire at the top of the primary calendar.
The bill that passed the Senate also would give the secretary of state the power to coordinate a regional primary with other Western states, which would further drive attention from candidates to this part of the country.
But while SB 5273 would be a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough. The bill still would ask voters to declare a preference for either the Democratic or Republican party in filling out a ballot for the presidential primary, a requirement many voters would prefer to bypass.
Washington residents do not register by party, allowing voters to cast a ballot for candidates from either party in primary elections for everything from U.S. senator to county councilor. The exception is the presidential primary, and it should be removed.
“Allowing Washington’s undeclared voters to select a preferred candidate would provide more inclusive elections and invite greater participation,” said Wyman, a Republican who has been secretary of state since 2013.
State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, told The (Longview) Daily News: “(The primary) is an expensive process, and for it to turn into list-gathering for two parties is unfair to voters and taxpayers. Why would we not allow everybody to vote?”
Companion bills in the Senate (SB 5229) and House (HB 1262) would move the date of the presidential primary and allow for undeclared voters to cast a ballot. That option would be preferable to one that still requires a party declaration, but moving the date of the primary would represent an improvement over the current system.
Meanwhile, we again call for the state Democratic Party to use results of the primary — rather than caucuses — to apportion delegates to the national convention. But that is an issue for another time.
The bottom line is that Washington voters deserve to have their voices heard when it comes to choosing presidential candidates. Thus far, it appears the Legislature is willing to listen.