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Parties Should Let The Voters Decide

Nine months from now, Americans probably will know the identity of the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees. Will Washington state’s voters have a chance to help choose them through a primary election?

The answer’s up to the political parties. You’d think they would welcome voter participation in their nominating processes. The broader the participation, the more likely it is that the nominees will have broad vote-getting power in November.

However, strong voter participation dilutes the power of party regulars and special interest groups.

For decades, Washington’s political parties have used sparsely attended neighborhood caucuses to measure grass-roots support for presidential nominees. An initiative opened the door to a presidential primary in 1992, but the late-May timing helped make the vote irrelevant. Other states’ voters already had tagged the finalists: Bill Clinton and George Bush.

To give Washington a timely voice in 1996, the Legislature passed a bill allowing the parties to choose an earlier date for the presidential primary election. Today is the deadline for Gov. Mike Lowry to act on the bill. We hope he signs it.

We also hope the political parties go along with it.

They can score political points by welcoming the public to their fold. But first, the parties have to spurn their institutional motives to opt for caucuses and special interest control.

In 1992, when Bush was the automatic Republican nominee, it was easy for Washington’s Republican Party to pledge it would follow the primary election results. But the Democrats, who had thought they’d have a horse race on their hands, wanted the control the caucuses seemed to offer party insiders and special interests such as government-worker unions.

In 1996, the roles are switched. For Democrats, Clinton’s the undisputed nominee, so it’s been easy for them to push for the early-primary bill. But Republicans have a horse race, and their party leadership is guided by the religious right, which easily can swamp caucuses but may or may not be able to swing a primary election. So, will the Republicans shun the primary?

Why hide from voters? This is a time of popularity for the GOP. If it opens wide its doors to the masses, it might greatly increase its power base in Washington.

Besides, a primary election could address our government’s biggest liability: apathy. A primary attracts candidates to the region. And by admitting more Americans to the nominating process, it improves the odds that the resulting nominees will make more voters want to enter the polling place in November, for a change.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board

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