Caucus? Primary? Voters here can do both
Over the past two decades, Washington's role in the nomination game has evolved beyond peculiar and now borders on bizarre.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
Democratic nominating process97 delegates will go
to the Democratic National Convention
Feb. 9: Democrats gather at about 610 precinct-caucus locations statewide to select 33,000 delegates to legislative-district caucuses.
April 5: Legislative-district caucuses elect 2,000 delegates and 1,000 alternates to congressional-district caucuses and the state party convention.
May 17: Congressional-district caucuses select 51 delegates to serve as the party's Election Committee. Those delegates also attend the national convention.
June 14-15: At the state convention in Spokane, the 51-member Election Committee selects 29 additional delegates to join them at the national convention. Rounding out the delegation are 17 "super delegates" — party leaders and elected officials who participate by virtue of their positions.
Aug. 25-28: Washington's 97 Democratic delegates (and 13 alternates) attend the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Source: state Democratic Party
Republican nominating process40 delegates will go
to the Republican National Convention
Feb. 9: Republicans gather at about 750 precinct-caucus locations statewide to select nearly 16,700 delegates to the legislative-district caucuses or county conventions.
Feb. 19: State presidential-primary election. Republicans will allocate 19 delegates to the national convention proportionally based on primary results.
March 1-April 20: Legislative-district caucuses and county conventions select 1,422 delegates to the state convention.
May 29-31: At the state party convention in Spokane, 37 delegates to the national convention are selected (19 based on the primary results and 18 based on the caucus results). The remaining three positions are "automatic" delegates — the state party chairman and two national-committee members.
Sept. 1-4: Washington's 40 GOP delegates (and 37 alternates) attend the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.
Source: state Republican Party
OLYMPIA — This week, many voters will begin receiving their ballots for the state's Feb. 19 presidential primary election.
But here's the catch — well, actually, there are several.
Those ballots won't explain that voting for a Democrat carries only symbolic weight. To have a say in picking the Democratic nominee, voters must attend one of the party's Feb. 9 precinct-caucus meetings — 10 days before the primary.
And there's nothing on the Republican ballots that says they count for only about half the vote. The GOP is choosing roughly half of its delegates through the primary and the other half through the caucuses, also on Feb. 9.
So, say you're a Republican-leaning voter who is torn between John McCain and Mike Huckabee. There's nothing stopping you from splitting your vote — you could caucus for McCain, then vote for Huckabee in the primary.
Confused? It's no wonder.
Political parties in every state have their own peculiar way of nominating presidential candidates. But over the past two decades, Washington's role in the nomination game has evolved beyond peculiar and now borders on bizarre.
Compared to how it's done in other states, "we're pretty far out there," said Todd Donavan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University.
With this year's wide-open presidential races, Democratic and Republican party leaders say there's a chance Washington voters could play a major role in deciding one or both of the nominees. It's doubtful either race will be decided by Feb. 5 — "Super Tuesday" — when two dozen states hold their primaries or precinct caucuses.
But let's forget all that do-we-matter speculation for a moment. First, a little primer on Washington's primary and caucuses.
Primary's tortured past
For nearly a century, Washington's political parties relied solely on precinct caucuses — small gatherings held in homes, schools, churches and firehouses — to allocate delegates to the national nominating conventions.
But that all changed after the 1988 election. That was the year televangelist Pat Robertson and his so-called "invisible army" of Christian conservative voters dominated the state Republican caucuses and conventions.
The next year, the Legislature adopted a citizen initiative calling for a presidential primary. The measure said the party caucus systems were "unnecessarily restrictive" and discriminated against the elderly, disabled and other people unable to attend the gatherings.
But Washington's presidential primary has had a tortured history.
The Republican Party used the first primary, in 1992, to allocate all of its delegates to the national convention. But it hardly mattered because then-President George H.W. Bush already had a lock on the nomination.
The Republicans then switched to a hybrid approach, using the primary to allocate half its delegates in 1996 and a third in 2000.
The state Democratic Party, meanwhile, has never relied on the primary and instead divvies up all of its delegates through the caucus and convention process.
The presidential primary eventually became so meaningless that the Legislature canceled it in 2004. Lawmakers argued it would be a waste of money, given that the Democrats were ignoring the primary and President George W. Bush had no serious challenger on the Republican ticket.
But the primary was revived for 2008. Hoping to give it more impact nationally, a panel of party leaders and state lawmakers agreed last summer to move the primary up by three months, to Feb. 19.
Once again, however, the Democrats are not using it to select delegates. And the Republican Party will use the primary results to allocate only 19 of its 40 delegates to the GOP national convention.
The state estimates the election will cost about $10 million. So, for those keeping score, that works out to about $526,000 per delegate that will actually be determined by the primary.
People who vote in the primary will have to choose between a Democratic or Republican ballot and will have to sign an oath promising that they haven't participated in the other party's nominating process.
Unlike 1996 and 2000, voters will not have the option of using an "unaffiliated" ballot. Though a large percentage of voters in those elections cast unaffiliated ballots, their votes were never counted by either party. So the state decided to scrap that option.
Primary vs. caucuses
Whether the primary has meaning remains a subject of much debate.
Secretary of State Sam Reed contends the primary — and not the caucuses — will carry more weight. He said candidates stand to gain a bigger bump of publicity through the primary because it "really is a better representation of a broad cross-section of the electorate."
There is some evidence that Washington's primary has mattered to the candidates in the past. In 2000, even though the primary would be used to decide only a handful of GOP delegates, candidates from both parties flocked to the state before the election. They hoped a win here would give them at least a symbolic bounce heading into that year's "Super Tuesday."
Still, state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz scoffed at Reed's assertions that the primary means more.
"How do you take three-quarters of the delegates being decided through the caucuses and one-quarter through the primary and come up with the math that the primary is more meaningful?" Pelz said.
Pelz, who referred to the primary as a "$10 million public-opinion poll," is angry that Reed has been aggressively promoting the primary and hardly mentions the caucuses.
It's a tussle that goes back many years.
Reed's predecessor, longtime Secretary of State Ralph Munro, was an outspoken critic of the caucus systems who tried in vain to force the parties to use the primary. Munro liked to say that the problem with caucuses is that they require people to argue with their neighbors about politics.
And, like other critics, Munro argued that the caucuses are poorly attended and too easily controlled by a small number of hard-core activists. Under the caucus system, he said, there are "more people going to the boat show than participating in the process."
The highest turnout ever for a presidential primary in Washington was in 2000, when nearly 43 percent of voters cast ballots. During the hotly contested race for the 2004 Democratic nomination, about 100,000 turned out for that party's caucuses. That's less than 3 percent of the state's voters.
But party insiders staunchly defend the precinct caucuses.
Dick Derham, a longtime Republican activist, said moderates like Munro and Reed hate the caucuses because they have typically favored the more conservative candidates.
And, aside from serving as valuable "party building" events, Derham said, the caucuses are a better way of measuring a candidate's grass-roots organizing strength.
State Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser said the GOP's decision to select delegates through both the caucuses and the primary is a "balanced solution." He said the primary is more convenient for most voters, but added he doesn't think the caucuses are that big a burden.
"People are busy," Esser said, "but I don't think it's asking too much to take a couple hours to try to help us figure out who the next president of the United States is going to be."
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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