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March 9, 2007

Demo lawmakers want to cancel '08 presidential primary

Posted by David Postman at 8:46 AM

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, wants the state to skip next year's presidential primary just like we did in 2004 after lawmakers decided it would be expensive and largely meaningless. It would be even more expensive next year — estimated at $9.2 million — and no more meaningful.

Hunt is chairman of the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee. He sponsored a bill that would eliminate the primary for next year but keep the presidential preference election law on the books.

Hunt said in a statement:

"The presidential-primary election for our voters doesn't even rise to the level of a political beauty contest — which would be an insignificant enough level, anyway. At least in a beauty contest, the winner gets a crown and a bouquet of flowers."

How much meaning the primary has is largely up to the political parties. Democrats have not appropriated any of their delegates based on the outcome of Washington's primary. Republicans have used the results to determine about a third of their delegates.

Instead, both parties prefer caucuses. The primary was supposed to be a reform to get away from the small number of party regulars who show up for a caucus. But it has had a troubled history. The first primary was 1992 after an initiative to the Legislature sponsored by former chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties. As I wrote in 2003, the move was prompted by the 1988 caucuses:

That year, the Republican Party caucuses selected the Rev. Pat Robertson, a conservative Christian, as the state's choice.

"I think people in our state and many other states were just totally disgusted that a very small minority of right-wingers could manipulate our state into being a Pat Robertson state," said (then Secretary of State Ralph) Munro, a moderate Republican.


It was a hard sell to the voters. Turnout was low in 1992 and 1996 — never exceeding 25 percent in those years. And the primary was held late enough that the nominations were already largely decided.

In '96 and 2000 voters had to choose from among Democratic, Republican or unaffiliated ballots. That ticked off voters who were not used to having to declare a party preference.

When lawmakers voted in 2003 to skip the '04 primary it generated much debate in the Senate, though it passed the House easily.

The late Sen. Jim West argued then that keeping the primary was a defense of democracy itself.

West said canceling the primary made him think about the 1935 book "It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis.

According to the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, the book is about a presidential candidate who, when he wins, "forcibly gains control of Congress and the Supreme Court, and, with the aid of his personal paramilitary storm troopers, turns the United States into a totalitarian state.

UPDATE: Secretary of State Sam Reed opposes the move to cancel the primary. He said he went along with the 2004 suspension because lawmakers said it would be a one-time only cancellation.

And there could be interesting intra-party battles brewing over the presidential primary. Reed said that he has heard from representatives of presidential campaigns on both sides that want a primary, and want to push the state parties to apportion 100 percent of delegates from the popular election, not a caucus.

Reed, a Republican, said he has heard from the campaigns of Republicans Romney, McCain and Giuliani, all who have said they prefer a primary. On the Democratic side, he said, "Obama would much rather have it go to a public vote and not just have the party functionaries doing it." He said the Edwards campaign is also interested in the more populist approach to a primary than the private party caucus.

State Republicans have told Reed they would continue deciding at least some of their delegates by the primary. Democrats say they will continue to do it all by caucus. Reed said if lawmakers want to consider canceling the primary they should wait until the parties make final decisions this summer on how they will select delegates. Four years ago lawmakers voted to cancel the primary in a special December session in the year prior to the election.

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