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The system demystified: a Q-and-A

The Spokesman-Review’s election-answer person responds to some of the frequently asked questions about the upcoming Washington state primary:

Q: So, with all these campaign yard signs I’m seeing everywhere, do we have an election or something coming up?

A: Yes, the state primary, also known as the top two primary, is Aug. 19.

Q: Isn’t that a bit early?

A: It might seem that way, particularly for longtime Washington voters who got used to the primary being in September. But last year the Legislature moved the primary to the third Tuesday in August to put more time between the primary and the general election in November.

Q: And they did this to …?

A: To allow more time to print up and mail out the general election ballots. Most of the state votes by mail now, and there were concerns that military members serving overseas wouldn’t get their ballots in time to mark them and get them back if a primary race was so close it needed a recount.

Q: So this year’s primary is like last year’s primary?

A: Only as far as scheduling is concerned. This year the state will debut the top two primary, in which voters get a single ballot with all the candidates’ names on it. A voter can choose a candidate from any party for any race, but only one candidate per office. Last year’s election was primarily for municipal offices, which are nonpartisan, but two years ago, the partisan primary was limited by party and voters had to pick one party’s ballot and select only among that party’s candidates.

Q: That doesn’t sound right. Weren’t we able to pick a Democrat for one office, a Republican for another and even a communist for a third if we wanted in primaries?

A: Once upon a time, but not in 2006. What you’re thinking of is the old blanket primary, which Washington had for about 70 years.

Q: Yeah, I remember that system. Why’d we get rid of that?

Because the federal courts said it was unconstitutional. It infringed on the political parties’ ability to make sure that Democratic nominees were selected by Democrats, Republican nominees by Republicans, and so forth, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in 2003. So the voters opted for the top two primary in an initiative in 2004.

Q: But if it passed in 2004, how come we’re just doing this for the first time in 2008?

A: Because the major political parties, who successfully sued the state to get rid of the blanket primary, also sued over the top two primary. While the suit was pending, the state used an alternate system it cobbled together after the federal court ruling, which required separate party ballots or at least divisions for the parties on a single ballot. The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t rule that the top two primary could pass constitutional muster until this March.

Q: So now everyone’s happy with this top two system?

A: The major political parties think the way it has been set up for this election is unconstitutional and sent letters to Secretary of State Sam Reed last week to that effect. They’ll probably be back in federal court at some point, but Reed says the election will go on as planned.

Q: How will it work?

A: You’ll get one ballot with all the races on it, partisan offices as well as the nonpartisan races like the judges. Most counties vote completely by mail, so those ballots will arrive around the end of July, and must be postmarked no later than Election Day, which is Aug. 19. It’s a fairly busy election year, so all the statewide executive offices, from governor on down, are on the ballot, as are the U.S. House races (there’s no U.S. Senate race this year in Washington), legislative races and county commissioner posts in many counties.

On the partisan races, candidates will list their party preference, but you can vote for any candidate in any race.

Q: So I can vote for Barack Obama for president but Dino Rossi for governor?

A: No. The presidential primary was in February, so Obama and John McCain won’t be on the Washington ballot again until November. But you could vote for Rossi, who lists his party preference as GOP, for governor; Brad Owen, who lists his party preference as a Democrat, for lieutenant governor; Marilyn Montgomery, who lists the Constitution Party, for secretary of state; and Curt Fackler, who lists no party preference, for insurance commissioner. In the old system, the Democrat who got the most votes and the Republican who got the most votes automatically went to the general election. So did any third party candidate or independent candidate who got a minimum vote threshold. Under this system, the top two vote recipients, regardless of party preference, go on to the general.

Q: Why do you keep saying “party preference” instead of just “party”?

A: Because the candidates are only asked which party they would prefer to have listed. The parties still have no say in determining who gets to call themselves a Democrat or a Republican and can endorse a candidate or not as they see fit. The winner isn’t the party’s nominee.

Q: So in some races, we could have two Democrats or two Republicans in the general election?

A: That’s possible. It will happen in a state House race in the 7th Legislative District, because only Republicans are running. It could happen in a race with candidates of several different party preferences listed, although it’s mathematically unlikely in a race with several candidates from one major party and a single candidate from the other major party.

Q: What about the Greens, the Libertarians, the other minor parties and the independents?

A: In theory, they’ve got the same chance as any candidate listing Democratic or Republican preference. In reality, it could be difficult for them to get to the general election if there’s a Democrat and a Republican in that race.

Q: So this is the way the primary is going to be from now on?

A: Hard to say. We’ve had three different systems since 2004, so it would be a bit of a surprise if something didn’t change between now and 2010. In the meantime, don’t forget: any candidate for any race, but only one candidate per race, and the ballots must be postmarked by Aug. 19.