Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist
Of primary concern
Tuesday is presidential primary day in Washington. By most accounts, it will be a gigantic bust. Taxpayers are spending almost $10 million...
Tuesday is presidential primary day in Washington. By most accounts, it will be a gigantic bust.
Taxpayers are spending almost $10 million for 19 delegates to be awarded in a race Republican Sen. John McCain has all but won; and so Democrats can stage a high-profile, show-and-tell event with no delegates forthcoming from the results.Someone please let me know when we are having $10 million worth of fun. In the future, we should get rid of the caucuses (held this year Feb. 9) and switch to the primary for all voters, all parties.
For one thing, local election officials have a better record tallying votes. The best proof that the caucus system is full of holes came with the premature announcement by Republicans that McCain had won, while Mike Huckabee was still too close for that call to be made.
Vote counting by the parties can be sketchy.
Caucuses are quaint gatherings that are unwelcoming to the military, the disabled and a variety of other voters who don't want to sit around with their neighbors and hash out the decision.
Yes, it is very exciting that caucuses were well-attended this year, but the number of citizens participating remains a small fraction of those who would vote in a primary. Considerably more than 250,000 people took part in the caucuses; 1.3 million voted in the last presidential primary.
Washington is ready to become a full-blown primary state. The state's dog's breakfast of primaries and caucuses has been held up to national derision. We are the only state in the country with caucuses and primaries for both Republicans and Democrats. Our wacky system — with delegates being assigned and not assigned — has got to go.
How did we get this nutty setup?
Start with the political parties, but the Democrats are the bigger rascals because they refuse to give voters a choice: caucus or no deal; vote in the primary but the party will not assign delegates to the convention on the basis of that voting.
The Republicans are half as bad because they agreed to assign half their delegates on the basis of Tuesday's voting and half from caucus voting. It's not the party's fault that the ebb and flow of other states' contests made primary voting here all but moot.
The Democratic race is very much alive and close. State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz knows voters will be furious with him when they realize they have to sign a pledge affirming they are Democrats to cast a primary vote — only to have the votes not count toward delegates.
Best defense being a good offense, Pelz fired off a nasty news release, blasting "Sam Reed's $10 million taxpayer-funded beauty contest."
Pelz — not Reed — is the goat. The secretary of state did not invent the primary; the Legislature and the citizens did.
Washington had caucuses for many years, until a citizens' initiative signed by 200,000 voters came along in 1988 and changed the rules, oddly, giving us both.
Ross Davis, the former state Republican Party chairman and the father of the citizens' initiative ushering in the primary, said the point of the initiative was to expand participation.
"For the Democrats to turn their back on expanding the franchise for the citizens of our state ... is inexcusable," he said in an interview. "Then to try and claim the name 'Democratic Party' — my foot. ... People should be really unhappy with the Democratic Party for not wanting to listen to the will of the people."
The introduction to that initiative, adopted by the Legislature in 1989, is very telling:
"The people of the state of Washington declare that: 1) The current presidential nominating caucus system in Washington state is unnecessarily restrictive of voter participation in that it discriminates against the elderly, the infirm, women, the disabled, evening workers and others who are unable to attend caucuses and therefore unable to fully participate in this most important quadrennial event that occurs in our democratic system of government. ... "The point was to usher in a presidential primary more reflective of the true feelings of Democrats and Republicans.
As former Secretary of State Ralph Munro used to say, more people are going to the Seattle Boat Show than participating in the presidential caucuses.
After the Legislature adopted the initiative, the parties should have dumped the caucuses. They refused, leaving a confusing, sometimes chaotic system for determining preferences.
The Democratic Party-controlled Legislature upheld the primary last session. So what is Pelz talking about? He is railing at Reed because he knows voters will be hopping mad at the party chairman — and they should be.
Washington has outgrown this archaic system. Caucuses are more suited to smaller states, like Iowa and Nebraska.
Washington is becoming a bigger state. Part of our rise in stature should include a grass-roots effort to convince the parties to dump the caucuses and support the primary. A lot of voters prefer voting by mail or the privacy of the voting booth.
The parties so far have resisted such a move. They love caucuses because they can attract the purest of the pure. They can gather them in a room, compile lists of supporters for future contests, and let caucus leaders push around meeker attendees to get a desired result.
But I am going to make a wild prediction. Our election system with caucuses and primaries is so convoluted and confusing, and the Republican tallying so troubling, that the parties will come to their senses by 2012 and abandon the caucuses.
The primary — and the primary as the sole event — gets us much closer to a real test of political intentions.
Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.