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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Ballots heading out Friday for March 12 presidential primary

Candidates include Trump, Biden, Haley and Phillips

By Dylan Jefferies, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 21, 2024, 6:08am

Washington’s March 12 presidential primary is just around the corner. Clark County’s elections office will mail ballots Friday, and they should arrive in mailboxes no later than Feb. 29.

But who gets to vote in the presidential primary? What about unaffiliated voters? And why are there still caucuses?

Here are some answers to some common questions.

Who’s on the ballot?

Voters will have the option to select their preferred presidential candidate. However, for this primary only, the major political parties require voters to choose a party by marking a box provided on ballot envelopes.

“The presidential primary is completely different than anything else we do because it’s almost entirely controlled by the rules decided by the two major political parties,” said Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey at a Feb. 13 informational event held by the League of Women Voters of Clark County. “The parties want to make sure that only voters who affiliate with their party are participating in their party’s nominating process.”

Ballots from voters who do not declare party affiliation will not be counted. Voters who choose to participate and make the required public declaration of party preference are then required to vote for a candidate of that party. If you vote for a candidate of the other party, or if you vote for more than one candidate, your ballot will not be counted.

Declared party preference will not affect how you may vote in future elections, including the November presidential election.

“In this year’s November general election, you will not declare a party preference,” Kimsey said. “You may vote for any presidential candidate of your choice.”

Party selection is removed from voter records 60 days after certification of the presidential primary.

Republican candidates on the ballot include former President Donald Trump and challenger Nikki Haley. Democratic candidates include President Joe Biden and challenger Dean Phillips. Some candidates who have already dropped out of the race will also appear on the ballot, such as Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Marianne Williamson.

Trump will appear on the presidential primary ballot regardless of the outcome of legal challenges to the former president’s eligibility. Ballots are printed in advance so they can be mailed to overseas voters and those in the military.

How are the candidates determined?

Caucuses are events run by each party to determine issues for party platforms and to select the delegates who will participate in state and national party conventions. The presidential primary serves as a winnowing process to determine which candidates will be on the general election ballot. It allows voters to help the political parties choose their presidential nominees.

For the Republican Party, the precinct caucuses kick off a process that culminates at the Republican National Convention. This year’s precinct caucuses were Feb. 3. The party’s county convention is slated for March 16 at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. From there, delegates and alternates will be elected to be representatives at the Washington State Republican Convention on April 18, followed by the Republican National Convention on July 15 in Milwaukee, Wis., which will feature 43 delegates from Washington, including three from Washington’s 3rd Congressional District.

On June 22, 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 between Aug. 19 – 24 in Chicago to formally select the party’s presidential candidate. Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, where Clark County voters reside, is sending five people to the Democratic National Congressional Committee out of the 107 who will represent the entire state.

A key difference between the Democratic and Republican national conventions is that Democrats tend to portion their delegates proportionally, while Republicans follow a winner-take-all approach.

Are caucuses and primaries different?

Caucuses and primaries have changed a lot over the years, said Carolyn Long, a political science professor at WSU Vancouver and former congressional candidate.

“Today’s election process is not at all what the framers of the Constitution envisioned,” she said.

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The development of the two-party system, advances in media coverage and public expectations becoming more democratic drove those changes, she said.

A move toward national party conventions began between 1824 and 1828 when state legislatures became more involved in the presidential selection process. Prior to that, presidential aspirants were chosen by a congressional caucus, also known as a king caucus, a closed-door affair where members of Congress determined whom they wanted as their potential president.

In the early days of party conventions, national political operatives played a key role in selecting delegates to a convention. Later, state and local party leaders selected the delegates.

“If you think about the smoke-filled rooms, this is exactly what it was like,” Long said. “It was very insular. Rank-and-file partisans were not involved, and it was seen as fairly corrupt.”

During the Progressive Period, in 1883, the Pendleton Act introduced the presidential primary. Still, party leaders dominated because delegates were not bound by the primary results.

“Once again, party elites were controlling the process, not the rank-and-file,” Long said.

Conducting primaries was considered too expensive during the Great Depression, and they waned in popularity. However, they experienced a midcentury resurgence when party administrators began to play a larger role, taking power away from state party leaders.

Things came to a head for Democrats at the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention.

“There was violence, but more importantly, what happened was Vice President Hubert Humphrey was chosen as the Democratic nominee because (Lyndon B. Johnson) chose not to run, and Humphrey had not entered any of the primaries,” Long said. “So, the nominee for the Democrats had not played a role in the primary democratic process.”

After that, primaries changed significantly. The McGovern-Fraser Commission brought significant reforms to how conventions were run and the role of delegates, such as limiting delegates to conventions from the same party. Additionally, a push for proportional representation encouraged more women, minorities and young people to become delegates, Long said.

“It made it a little bit more democratic,” Long said.

That brings us to our current system and our current presidential selection process, “the most complex and expensive process in the world,” according to Long. Today, only four states use caucuses to determine their presidential candidates.