Kate Riley / Times staff columnist
Washington taxpayers should not pay for state parties' precinct officer elections
Washington state's major parties continue to challenge the state's Supreme Court-approved top two primary, suggesting it confuses voters. Columnist Kate Riley argues taxpayers should not have to pay for the election of party precinct committee officers, a gift of about $2 million in King County alone.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
Vote | PCO elections
You've got to hand it to Washington state's major political parties. They are tenacious in attempting to manipulate the state's primary-election system to their selfish advantage.
Officials of both the state Democratic and Republican parties say it's full steam ahead through the door left ajar by U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour in a ruling last week. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Washington's new voter-approved top-two primary could be implemented in a constitutional way, but Coughenour was persuaded the parties could raise constitutional issues with how it is applied. Expect them to argue that voters are confused by the top-two primary.
"The case is going forward," said Luke Esser, Washington State Republican Party chairman.
"It never was over," said David McDonald, Washington State Democrats executive committee member.
Bless their partisan hearts. They just can't let go — even after almost 60 percent of voters approved the qualifying primary where the top two vote-getters advance, regardless of their party preference. Even after the highest court in the land upheld the initiative. Even after voters successfully negotiated the new primary in 2008 just fine.
The president of the Washington State Association of County Auditors said the voter confusion argument would be news to him.
"With the top two, I haven't heard much negative at all," said Jerry Pettit, who is Kittitas County Auditor. "In fact, most of the voting public loves it."
In contrast, the 2006 primary provoked many voters, forced for the first time in about 70 years to confine their votes to candidates of only one party, thanks to the parties' short-lived success in limiting voter choice.
"Let's say, there were numerous comments written on the ballots that are not repeatable or printable," Pettit said.
The parties picked this costly fight, when they got Washington's popular blanket primary declared unconstitutional. And they need to live with consequences, including paying back the $109,000 Coughenour ruled state taxpayers were due.
One of the voter-confusion arguments has to do with the state's incredibly generous practice of permitting the parties free access to the ballot to elect party officials, known as precinct committee officers (PCOs). By definition, these are partisan offices and the parties require only Democrats to vote for Democrats and Republicans for Republicans — so the top-two won't do.
But if the parties succeed in making this argument — and really, even if they don't — a solution presents itself.
Strip the PCO elections off the ballot. Think about it. Why, in a state where more than one-third of voters perennially identify themselves as independents, is the public paying for elections for a private organization? Homeowner associations, Rotary and book clubs don't elect officers on the taxpayers' dime.
Consider also that every local jurisdiction — cities, school boards, hospital and fire districts — actually pays for its presence on a ballot. The Seattle School Board will reimburse King County for its share of this year's elections.
But get this: The parties get a free ride — free for them but costly for taxpayers. On an average ballot without a PCO election, King County has to make up only about 80 different ballot versions, according to the King County elections department.
Contrast that with primaries that accommodate PCO elections. In an even-year primary, there would be at least 2,547 ballot versions. That's more than 30 times as many different ballot versions, each of which needs visual proofing, machine testing and, for voters not able to read a ballot, the audio recording of candidate names.
Then there's what the parties should be paying. Using the county's formula for estimating what a jurisdiction owes, the two parties together in 2008 would have owed nearly a cool $2.4 million — just in King County.
Taxpayers should not have to pay for the elections of private organizations. But if PCOs stay on the ballot, King and other budget-strapped counties should start charging the parties for what clearly is a gift of public funds.
Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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