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Thu., Aug. 16, 2012, 5:15 p.m.

Lawsuit would keep Romney off Washington ballot

OLYMPIA -- A political party is seeking to keep Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan off Washington's Nov. 6 general election ballot. And it's not the Democratic Party.

The Libertarian Party of Washington argues in a lawsuit filed this week in Thurston County Superior Court that the GOP, like the LPWA, is not a "major party" under state law but a "minor party." This isn't an instance of the parties comparing various parts of their anatomy, but a distinction in law that decides how candidates for president make it on the ballot.

J. Mills, a former state LPWA chairman and the attorney who filed the lawsuit, said it's a matter of making everyone play by the same rules.

Kirby Wilbur, state GOP chairman, calls the lawsuit "a silly nuisance" and has no doubt that Romney and Ryan will be on the ballot. . .

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According to the claims in Mills' lawsuit, a major party is one in which at least one candidate for some statewide office receives at least 5 percent of the vote in the most recent previous general election. A minor party is one in which no candidate from that party received at least 5 percent in the past general election.

In the days before the Top 2 primary, major parties automatically got the top vote-getter from a primary on the general election. Minor party candidates had to meet a threshhold in the primary to advance to the general election.

All of that went out the window, however, with the Top 2 primary, which doesn't pick party nominees, but instead sends the top two vote-getters to the general election. To qualify as a major party, a candidate for statewide office would have had to be nominated for that office at the state convention under a statute Mills cites in the suit.

For 2012, the previous election that would matter is the 2010 U.S. Senate race between Patty Murray and Dino Rossi, because that was the only statewide office on the general election ballot in the most recent previous election year. Rossi was a Republican, but he didn't get the party's nomination at the 2010 GOP state convention because he was locked in a contest with Clint Didier and the primary was several months off.

Mills contends that means Rossi didn't meet the legal definition of a Republican candidate in November. So even though he got nearly 48 percent of the vote against Murray, no Republican got the required 5 percent in 2010 and the Washington GOP became a minor party.

As a minor party, the Republicans would have to gather 1,000 signatures from state residents asking to place their party's candidate on the ballot. Six minor parties, Libertarians included, did that before Aug. 3 this year. Republicans didn't, so they don't get a presidential spot on the ballot and should have to run Romney-Ryan as write-ins, Mills says.

"The idea that a major party candidate for president would not be on Washington state's ballot is absurd," Wilbur said. He suggested that the Libertarian Party, who has had some of its members switch parties and try  unsuccessfully to take control of the state GOP is now trying a new tactic.

The state Republican Party did nominate Rossi, and all the other Republicans who made it through the 2010 primary, at its State Committee meeting late that summer, Wilbur added. The party has talked with its attorneys, who have also talked with the Romney campaign attorneys.

"We have absolutely no concerns about (the lawsuit)," he said. "When they call me and tell me they're worried, I'll be concerned."

Katie Blinn, co-director of state elections, also isn't worried that Romney will be left off the ticket, but not for the same reasons as Wilbur. What the party's State Committee does with endorsements and nominations is their business, and not legally binding, she said.

The law that Mills cites in his lawsuit, that refers to the previous statewide general election, is on the books, but "is not good law." It was written for the old "Pick a Party" primary system the state had for a few years, but became outmoded when voters approved the Top 2 primary. The Legislature hasn't repealed any of the old laws because a challenge to the Top 2 primary is still kicking around in the courts.

But the only true partisan elective office Washington these days is for president, Blinn said. Because of that, the marker for qualifying as a major party was the presidential race in 2008, not the U.S. Senate race in 2010. And in 2008, bona fide Republican presidential candidate John McCain got 40.5 percent of the vote, far more than the 5 percent required to qualify the GOP nominees for this year's ballot. 

The Secretary of State's office has an administrative code that spells this out, Blinn said. Even though Mills argues that an administrative code can't override a statute, Blinn counters the statute was essentially repealed by an initiative so it's not overriding anything.

All this will get a hearing, possible next week, in Thurston County Superior Court. Odds that it will be an interesting hearing are pretty good; odds that Romney won't be on the Washington state ballot seem pretty slim, because even if a trial court says yes, the state and the GOP will move for a quick appeal and some judge somewhere is likely to give the state the go-ahead to put Mitt and Paul on the ballot with Barack and Joe and the host of other candidates most of us have never heard of.

But even a temporary ruling in favor of the Libertarians would give Washington something it hasn't had in months: some attention from the national presidential campaigns that involves something other than a trip to the Seattle suburbs for a high-priced fund-raiser.  

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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