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July 7, 2011 at 12:53 PM

Sam Reed's gift to Washington's independent voters

Posted by Kate Riley

Secretary of State Sam Reed stopped by the office today, part of a touch-base tour after his announcement last week that he would not be running for a fourth term in 2012.

Though he's still got a few statewide elections to land safely before his departure date -- as we know in Washington, that's sometimes not always an easy thing -- the announcement prompted a round of editorials from around the state lauding Reed's first 10 years in office.

Let me add my own appreciation. Reed is an unusual public servant who, though he considers himself a partisan Republican, puts his constituents before special interests, including his own party. We saw this in his defense of the top-two primary and in his neutral umpiring of the razor-tight 2004 gubernatorial election, which he acknowledged today cost him a few friendships among fellow party members.

The first time I met him he was running for office in 2000. He was a proponent of preserving Washington's blanket primary, which had come under fire after California's similar primary was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

While his Democratic opponent was squired around by state party officials who wanted more of a closed partisan primary, Reed, a former Thurston County auditor, took the independent path, stating strongly his commitment to being true to Washington's voters who embraced the blanket primary by initiative in the 1930s.

Under the blanket, voters could chose among all candidates, regardless of their party. The top vote getter of each major party advanced to the general.

Reed was elected and on his first day in office in 2001, he was served with a lawsuit brought by Washington's Democratic, Republican and Libertarian state parties seeking to overturn the primary. That started a decade-long fight.

The parties prevailed, and the blanket primary was dead. The Legislature passed a bill creating a top-two primary, which would preserve voter choice in the primary and advance the top two vote-getters regardless of party. Turns out it was a partisan-friendly contrivance, because former Gov. Gary Locke vetoed a portion of the bill that left the state with a partisan primary. Voters didn't have to register with a party but could vote only for candidates of one party. County auditors across the state were subjected to profanity scrawled across ballots by voters upset about the limitation. At the next general election, in 2004, voters handily embraced the top two primary. And the parties dragged the state back into federal court.

This time, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Washington voters could have the primary they wanted -- and the first top-two primary was held in 2008. The parties still are raising legal questions about the primary, but their efforts to close Washington's primaries have utterly failed.

The beauty of the top two is that all voters have a say in who the general election choices are. As a result, they have a choice between the two strongest candidates, rather than the partisan extremists more likely to emerge from a closed primary.

Though the top two is still new, it's moderating influence on extreme partisanship in the Legislature is likely to grow stronger.

Reed has much to be proud of in his tenure. But as an independent voter who believes the parties are little more than puppets of their special interests, I am especially grateful for Reed's commitment to voter choice and his willingness to fend off the parties, including his own friends. Another secretary of state with a more partisan view likely would have given Washington a different result.

Reed's leadership mattered, and Washington will benefit for years to come.

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