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Tuesday, March 18, 2008 - Page updated at 12:49 PM

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With Supreme Court ruling, Top 2 primary OK'd for August

AP Political Writer

A surprise U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Washington's voter-approved Top 2 primary system was hailed by Secretary of State Sam Reed Tuesday as a huge victory for average voters over the political parties.

The first running of the new primary will Aug. 19.

"Wow!" Reed said when he got the news from The Associated Press. "That's terrific! It means the people of the state of Washington are going to be able to control who gets elected through this process."

The ruling means the state will dump the unpopular "pick-a-party" primary it has used for the past four years while the voter-approved Top 2 initiative was being challenged in the courts by the political parties.

In its place will be something akin to the old "blanket primary" that was abolished previously by the federal courts. The ballot will list all candidates for each office and a voter will be able to pick his or her favorite, with ticket-splitting allowed.

The top two vote-getters then will advance to the general election in November, even if they are from the same party. Had the system been in place in 1996, for instance, the governor's November final would have been between two Democrats, Gary Locke and Norm Rice, because both outpolled Republican Ellen Craswell.

"It's going to look like the blanket primary that ended in 2002," Reed said.

Reed predicted that the Top 2 system will spread to other states, possibly in Oregon and California very soon.

The decision shocked former Washington state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt, who helped sponsor the original challenge of the Top 2 system that was approved by voters as Initiative 872, but never implemented.

"You're kidding," he said when he heard the decision. "When we were sitting in court the justices appeared to be very hostile to the state's position."

He said the justices appeared to agree with the party's position that the Top 2 system undermined its right of free association.

Republicans also argued the parties should have the right to select their own nominees. State Democratic Chairman Dwight Pelz and Republican Chairman Luke Esser did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

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The state Grange, the farm advocacy group that sponsored the original "blanket primary" system and the follow up Top 2 plan, was thrilled by the decision.

"It's a huge win," said Terry Hunt, the group's government affairs manager and former president who doggedly pursued the primary issue through the courts, the Legislature and the initiative campaign.

"It shows that elections belong to the people, not to the parties," he said. "It means the world to voters. It brings them back to where they were (with the blanket primary) and lets them pick the best candidate for each political office. It's a win for this state and for other states that may want to adopt it.

"It really opens the door to our elections."

State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, a conservative who wins with crossover votes and is often battled by his own party, said, "The unemployment line for the political party bosses will be very, very long" as voters assert their rights to pick finalists. "I can't believe it. The people win this time."

Independent pollster Stuart Elway said the decision will be extremely popular with Washington voters.

"People don't want to restrict themselves to one party line, and even partisans like to skip back and forth once in a while. There are very few straight ticket voters here. This news will be welcomed by voters in Washington."

Candidates in both parties will have to appeal to the broad middle of the electorate and not just their bases on the left and the right, Elway said. Candidates with crossover appeal will do best, he said.

The greatest impact of the new primary will be at the legislative level, he predicted. The higher offices, such as the battle between Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire and Republican challenger Dino Rossi, will be less affected since most are already running broad, general-election styles campaigns, he said.

Gregoire had no immediate reaction to the ruling. She had previously supported the Top 2 system, which Rossi opposed in the Legislature.

"I don't know that the ruling will have much impact on our campaign," said Rossi spokeswoman Jill Strait. "We will operate under the system the voters approved and the Supreme Court approved.

"In our race, it's probably a wash. We're running the campaign we've always been running. Our focus is on facing Christine Gregoire in November, not on the primary."

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The cases are 06-713, Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, and 06-730, Washington et al. v. Washington State Republican Party.

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On the Net:

Secretary of State: http://www.secstate.wa.gov

Opinion: http://www.scotusblog.com/wp/

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Editors: Associated Press Writer Doug Esser in Seattle contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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