Don't feel bad if you're confused about how to vote in Washington's primary this month. You're not alone. The state's primary process has flipped and flopped at least three times in the last five years -- from the decades-old "blanket primary" to the short-lived "pick-a-party" process and all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which earlier this year upheld the legality of the process we have finally settled on (for now).
That new process -- outlined in ballots and voter pamphlets that went out late last month -- is deceptively simple: pick any candidate you want, regardless of party. If you want a Republican for governor, a Democrat for attorney general and a Green for lands commissioner, say so.
This openness is akin to the process Washington voters used for 68 years. But in that "blanket primary," the top vote-getter from each party would become that party's nominee, and each party would have its horse on the November ballot. Not so anymore. You can still vote for whomever you want, but only the top two vote-getters are going to be staring you in the face in November, whether they're Greens or Republicans, Whigs or Socialists.
Spokane County auditor Vicky Dalton doesn't foresee any major problems with the new system. "I think this'll actually be a lot easier and much more comfortable for the voters. This is similar to what we used to have for 70 years," she says, adding that she's just happy the process has finally been decided. "We have a system that's been crafted based on the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court. This is a system that gives the voter a choice -- which is something that voters have loudly and distinctly stated that they want."
But John Waite worries that the Top Two system will effectively edge out any candidate who doesn't have the Republican or Democrat seal of approval. Waite, the owner of Merlyn's Science Fiction in Spokane, is running for the state House of Representatives in the 3rd District, opposite Rep. Alex Wood (D) and two Republican opponents. A self-identified Independent, he thinks he might have a chance to make the top-two cut, given the two Republicans and the district's strong leftward bent. But he's concerned for wild-card candidates in other districts. "If you're a Green or a Libertarian or a Progressive or whatever, I don't know how in the world you're going to get on any [November] ballot," he says. Under the old system, third-party candidates would merit consideration in the general election even if they received relatively few votes in the primary.
Some wonder if the likely absence of third-party candidates in November will make it harder to send a message of dissatisfaction to big-party candidates. In the 2000 presidential election, for instance, some liberal voters in safe Democrat states cast a symbolic vote for Ralph Nader to express their frustration with Al Gore and George Bush.
Vicky Dalton says voters will just have to voice that sentiment two months earlier than usual. She thinks the top-two system actually gives voters more choices. "Instead of a small group of people (the parties' nominators) making a decision about who's on the ballot, it's the voters who make the choice of who's on the ballot," she says.
Political watchers are also concerned, though, that the top two vote-getters for a given office might end up being from the same party. David Postman, chief political reporter for the Seattle Times, said in an online video published by the state's public affairs television channel that he's "almost certain" this will happen in Seattle's historically Democratic 36th legislative district and notes it's likely that several districts in Eastern Washington will see two Republican candidates. (It's guaranteed, in fact, in northeast Washington's 7th district, where all five candidates are Republicans.)
That the new process eliminates candidates will give the primary more oomph than it ever has before, even while turnout (as Vicky Dalton points out) can be some 15 percent lower than in the general election. Thus, a smaller group of people could affect considerably larger political results. But that, says Dalton, is up to voters. "They have the choice. They just have to exercise their decision. And not sending a ballot back is their decision to make," she says. "Although we'd like everyone to do it of course. Properly marked so we can count them. We really like to count ballots. We really, really do."
Primary ballots must be placed in county drop boxes (at all libraries and elsewhere) or postmarked by Aug. 19 to count. Take a look at some of the contenders hoping to make the cut:
ROSSI/GREGOIRE: THE REMATCH
Republicans here got a taste in 2004 for what Democrats nationwide suffered through in 2000, when a painfully close election got away from them. Allegations flew and resentment lingered. If Dems were secretly hopeful that Gore would ask for a rematch in this presidential election, imagine how Republicans here have been itching for a replay in this year's gubernatorial contest.
Though Rossi -- a real-estate developer and former state senator -- was reluctant to spell out his continued designs on the governor's mansion during Gregoire's administration, he certainly acted like he intended to run again. In the last three years, Rossi has published a memoir (Dino Rossi: Lessons in Leadership, Business, Politics and Life), bought part of the Everett AquaSox minor-league baseball team and started a pseudo-political nonprofit foundation that was investigated by the Public Disclosure Commission for being a fundraising front.
Imagine Republicans' excitement, then, when he announced his candidacy last October. The first real newsworthy manifestation of that glow came this summer when the Building Industry Association of Washington erected 61 signs across Eastern Washington endorsing Rossi with the tag line, "Don't let Seattle steal this election." Though Rossi distanced himself from the remark, it seems apparent the wounds haven't healed yet.
Meanwhile, Gov. Christine Gregoire has been boasting of her accomplishments in Olympia, including creating a budget surplus and curbing greenhouse gas emissions. In an interview with The Inlander this spring, Gregoire pointed to the state's booming export business and its status as 49th in the nation in home foreclosures.
Despite a relatively strong economy, though, polls between Gregoire and Rossi remain tight. Pollster.com, a Website that aggregates all polls into one meta-poll, shows Gregoire leading Rossi 47.2 to 44.0 percent. (Polls in recent months consistently show Gregoire ahead, from three to 11 points.)
Fundraising is similarly tight. As of press time, the governor had raked in $8,502,272 to Rossi's $6,654,774.
If anyone was ever going to be able to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris, it was supposed to be Peter Goldmark in 2006. The Democrat was a likeable rancher and geneticist from the heart of G.O.P. country, running for a seat during an election in which Democrats ultimately unseated many Republicans and regained control of both the Senate and the House. Yet Goldmark got only 43 percent of the vote to her 56 percent.
With the Goldmark race behind her, McMorris (now McMorris-Rodgers) is expected to easily win re-election against a host of relative no-names, including perennial political contender Barbara Lampert, Gonzaga prof John Beck and psychologist Mark Mays.
Goldmark is not out entirely, though. He's running for lands commissioner against incumbent Republican Doug Sutherland.
Though the top-two primary won more than 60 percent of Washington voters when it was proposed as an initiative in 2004, it's still dogged by an undercurrent of confusion among voters and frustration among political parties. Up for re-election this year are two politicians who helped usher that system in: Attorney Rob McKenna, who argued on its behalf before the Supreme Court, and Secretary of State Sam Reed, whose job it is to make sure the primary goes without a hitch. Will voters send them a message?
With all the emphasis on the top two this season, it's easy to overlook a certain loophole scenario that could change the electoral math. In contests for nonpartisan offices like superintendent of public instruction and judgeships, if a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, they go to the November election unopposed. If anyone can pull off this prized feat, it could be longtime incumbent schools superintendent Terry Bergeson (over the protestations of many teachers' unions).
FOLLOW THE MONEY
The new top-two system, which allows candidates to simply state a political party preference rather than prove they have the party's blessing, is nicely egalitarian. The state's voters' pamphlet generally displays all candidates in the same way. The only way to judge them is to consider their qualifications and written statements.
A look at campaign fundraising numbers, though, quickly reveals which candidates are serious contenders with real financial backing. So while Republicans Marcia McCraw and Jim Wiest both look -- in the voters' pamphlet -- like they could give incumbent Lt. Gov. Brad Owen a run for his money, public finance records show Wiest has only raised $1,000 to McCraw's $12,000 -- and both pale in comparison to Owen's $104,000.
Spokane's 6th District, however, is shaping up to be a close one, financially. In the second House position, Democrat John Driscoll and Republican John Ahern were separated at press time by only $190 -- at $44,431 and $44,241, respectively. Things are equally tight for the district's other seat, where Republicans Kevin Parker ($69,691) and Mel Lindauer ($67,682) are neck-and-neck-and-neck with incumbent Dem Don Barlow ($65,169).