By John EarlThis article appeared in the Peninsula Gateway on September 13, 2006. The article is not available in the online version of the Gateway.
I received my primary election ballot in the mail the other day, and after taking a moment to curse the absurd "pick-a-party" system that was imposed on us by the major political parties, I scanned the ballot for the hotly contested races that will shape the face of government over the next few years. Boy was I disappointed.
In the Republican primary there are three races that are actually contested. In the Democratic primary there is one - sort of. You're probably aware that the "pick-a-party" system allows you to choose and nominate candidates of only one party. If you choose the Republican ballot, out of a total of eight races you can only make a choice for the U.S. Senate, State Senate and the 1st Legislative House race. On the Democratic ballot the only choice that party is allowing you to make is in the U.S. Senate race between Maria Cantwell and a gaggle of fringe candidates headlined by "Michael Goodspaceguy Nelson" and "Mike the Mover."
The two major parties have worked very hard to enforce party discipline. The result is that our September primaries resemble a coronation more than an election. In the process, voters are given less and less choice, and have subsequently grown more and more dissatisfied with the government that we eventually receive. If you get the feeling your voice is being minimized or marginalized, that's because it is.
I understand why the Supreme Court ruled that Washington's old blanket primary system was invalid. The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the two parties successfully argued that they should have the freedom to control who can participate in the selection of the party's standard bearer for a given office. I agree that a state should not be able to compel the political parties to associate with, and have their private nominating infiltrated by, people who don't embrace their political agendas.
However, if you accept the parties' argument that they are private entities and should be shielded from the general public, then why are primary elections funded with public money? As an independent voter, I protest being forced to provide my tax dollars to fund a "private" primary election for political parties whose agendas I don't support. In essence, the "pick-a-party" system compels me to either associate with political parties I disagree with, or else forfeit my right to vote in an electoral process I pay for. Through their lawsuit, the political parties have imposed on independent voters exactly the same injustice that they argued against in the Supreme Court.
But the battle is not over. There are at least two things voters in Gig Harbor can do to resist the effort of the political parties to dominate the primary election. First, unless you have an uncontrollable desire to cast an inconsequential protest vote against Maria Cantwell, fill in the Republican ballot in the primary race. Even if you consider yourself a Democrat, there are no real choices on that primary ballot, so you might as well exercise what little choice is available on the Republican side of the ticket. That way, you'll have some influence in 26th District legislative races, and you'll confound experts who hope to use the primary results to handicap the general election.
Second, support Pierce County Charter Amendment 3 in the November General election. For Pierce County elected offices, Charter Amendment 3 replaces the ridiculous "pick-a-party" system with an Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) system that allows voters to designate their preferences among all of the available candidates. With IRV, you get to rank candidates on the ballot in order of your preference. The candidate that receives the least amount of first place votes is eliminated, and all of their votes are transferred to the individual voter's second choice. The process repeats until one candidate has over 50 percent of the votes and a winner is declared.
The current party primary system gives undue influence to party operatives who back candidates that support their special agendas. These candidates are installed on the ballot before most voters even realize there is a race, and by the time election season arrives the electorate sometimes find they must choose between the lesser of two evils. IRV will put overly divisive and partisan politicians at a disadvantage and give the edge to consensus building candidates who can appeal to a broad range of voters. The frenzied followers of a party hack won't be able to compete with the broad middle occupied by reasonable and rational candidates who rank higher on everyone's list of preferences.
Pierce County voters can show the rest of the state a path to kicking out the "pick-a-party" system by approving Charter Amendment 3 in November. Party leaders may not like it, but the rest of the state will be far better off.