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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Washington’s March presidential primary: a primer

Both Republican, Democratic parties will use the same system this year, with an earlier start

By Calley Hair, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 12, 2020, 6:00am

Washington will join the ranks of early voters in the upcoming presidential primary.

For the first time, the state’s Democrats are ditching caucuses in favor of mail-in primary ballots to pick their party’s nominee. Republicans, who made the switch from a caucus system to a primary election in 2016, will do the same this year.

And for both parties, the timeline has been accelerated — Washington will vote on candidates in March, two months earlier than in 2016.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman certified a list of candidates Tuesday who will appear on the March 10 primary ballot. The list includes a single Republican, President Donald Trump, along with 13 Democrats: Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer, Tulsi Gabbard, Joseph R. Biden, Cory Booker, Michael Bennet, John Delaney, Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg. Both parties will also provide a write-in option.

“Holding the presidential primary earlier in the year is a boon for Washington as it gives our voters a greater voice in the nomination process for U.S. president,” Wyman said in a media release. “By making Washington more relevant in this process, I’m optimistic we’ll see record-breaking turnout in March.”

Here are answers to some common questions about this year’s presidential primary:

Why is it being held so early?

By the time parties in Washington had picked their presidential contenders in 2016, their decision was irrelevant.

Trump won the Republican state primary, but his last remaining rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, had dropped out of the election weeks earlier. Hillary Clinton won the state primary, but she’d already lost the caucuses that had been held two months prior and used to award delegates to the national nominating convention.

As a result, Washington spent $9 million on a primary process that proved essentially meaningless.

In early 2019, the Legislature passed a bill that moved the primary from the fourth week of May to the second week of March — just one week after so-called “Super Tuesday,” when nine states, including heavyweights like California and Texas, pick their candidates.

The move makes Washington one of the earlier states to vote, behind 20 or so others. The change will have a bigger impact on Democrats than on Republicans, who already have a presumptive nominee in Trump.

“I think that it’s good for Washington state to have a voice in the national selection of the candidate,” said Earl Bowerman, chair of the Clark County Republicans.

Do I need to register with a party to vote in a primary?

Not exactly. A presidential primary is the only election in Washington that requires voters to declare a party preference, but it doesn’t require you to fill out any paperwork ahead of time.

However, in order for their vote on a primary ballot to count, voters need to check a box indicating their party preference. The question is part of the ballot.

“It doesn’t mean that they are registered with the party, it simply means that they have a preference for that political party,” said Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey. “They’re not taking any action to formally register.”

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Once you check the box, your party affiliation is a matter of public record.

All registered voters will receive a primary ballot. To register to vote, you have a few options. You can visit voter.votewa.gov/WhereToVote.aspx if you have a current Washington driver’s license or a state-issued identification card.

Alternatively, you can register to vote in person at the Clark County Elections Office at 1408 Franklin St., as well as by mail with a voter registration form available at all local library branches, public schools, city and town halls and driver’s licensing offices.

“You can register to vote up to and including Election Day,” Kimsey added. Election Day registration requires a voter to visit the elections office in person.

The first ballots will start showing up in Clark County mailboxes on Feb. 22, Kimsey said.

What happens if I vote early, and then my candidate drops out before the election?

Then unfortunately, your vote won’t count, Kimsey said.

It’s possible that some of the many Democratic candidates will drop out of the race between Feb. 22 and when the votes are tallied on March 10. In that case, Kimsey said, the ballot will be reviewed by a canvassing board and likely discarded.

Drew Estep, party affairs director for the Washington State Democrats, said some voters may wait until after March 3’s Super Tuesday before casting a vote to minimize the chance of a wasted ballot.

“We anticipate a larger percentage of the electorate than normal to be voting late in the voting period,” Estep said.

Why am I still hearing talk about 2020 caucuses?

Unlike in years past, caucuses will not be used to select the state’s favored presidential candidate. They will, however, still be used to select the delegates who will represent each district at the political party conventions.

“Caucuses are still present in the system, but not for voting purposes,” Estep said.

On May 30, the Democratic district caucuses will meet to select national convention delegates. The number of delegates who support any given candidate at the convention will have already been decided by the primary election. To qualify for a delegate within a district, a Democratic candidate needs to have garnered at least 15 percent of the primary election vote within that district.

The delegates will attend the Democratic National Convention on July 13 in Milwaukee to formally select the party’s presidential candidate. Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, where Clark County voters reside, is sending five people to the DNCC out of the 107 who will represent the entire state.

The Republican National Convention will be held Aug. 24 in Charlotte, N.C., and feature 44 delegates from Washington, including three from Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. They’ll start their delegate selection process in precinct caucuses on Feb. 29, then decide who to send to the RNC at the GOP state convention on May 14.

“We hope that all of our Republicans participate in the caucus,” Bowerman said.

Columbian staff writer