Washington voters have a new system this summer to winnow out candidates for the general election. The first “top two primary,” on Aug. 19, will pare a long list of partisan and nonpartisan offices.
Some races are overflowing with candidates.
The governor’s race has 10 candidates, although most voters would be hard-pressed to name more than incumbent Chris Gregoire and the man she edged out in 2004, Dino Rossi. Gregoire, a Democrat, and Rossi, who lists his party preference as GOP, share the ballot with two Republicans, another Democrat, one candidate each from the Reform Party, the Green Party and the Independent Party, and two who say they have “No Party Preference.”
Other races are merely a warm-up for the general election, with just two candidates in the primary who will face each other in November unless a major write-in campaign knocks one out of the running. The state lands commissioner race seems already set, with incumbent Republican Doug Sutherland facing Democrat Peter Goldmark, as are six legislative races in districts completely or partly in Spokane County.
Party affiliation may be the most confusing thing about the top two primary, which was adopted by a voters initiative in 2004 but only made possible by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this March. A candidate doesn’t file as a member of a party, but does list a party which he or she “prefers.”
Candidates can list their party preference any way they wish, and neither the state nor the parties have any control over it. Rossi lists the GOP, for Grand Old Party, which Republicans often use instead of the formal party name. He says voters know the two names are synonymous; Democrats say he’s trying to fool some voters into thinking he’s not of the same party as an unpopular president.
Other incumbent Republicans, including Sen. Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, also list GOP after their names. It’s the way he’s listed his name on brochures and signs over the years, he said.
At least one identifiable Republican, county party Chairman Curt Fackler, listed “No Party Preference” in his run for state insurance commissioner. The race already had a Republican candidate, John Adams, and Fackler said he’s hoping to attract votes from independents and Democrats willing to consider someone other than incumbent Mike Kreidler.
However candidates lists their preferences – and however many candidates appear on the ballot for a particular office – the primary is designed to send the two candidates with the most votes on to the general election.
It allows a voter to pick any candidate in any race, but only one candidate in each race. In that sense, the top two primary is similar to the state’s old “blanket primary,” which was in place for about 70 years but ruled illegal by the federal courts in 2003.
Last week, the state’s Democratic and Republican parties argued that the top two is still illegal. It was put on hold by a federal judge, and the state never had the injunction removed after the Supreme Court ruled this system could pass constitutional muster. The state is arguing that a Supreme Court ruling trumps the district court injunction and plans to proceed.
Unlike the blanket primary, there’s no guarantee the general election ballot will feature one Democrat and one Republican. If the first- and second-place vote getters for a particular office are both Republicans, they face off in the November election and there is no Democrat.
That’s true whether the primary race has candidates with differing party preferences or all list the same party, such as the 7th Legislative District race with five candidates who are all Republicans.
That rule doesn’t apply to nonpartisan races, like the judiciary seats. The statewide ballot includes three Supreme Court positions, and the ballot in Spokane and the surrounding counties to the north and west has an Appeals Court race. Counties also elect judges to their Superior Court, where felonies, major civil suits and domestic cases are heard.
A judicial candidate who gets a simple majority in the primary goes on the general election ballot unopposed, so barring an actual tie, any race with only two candidates is essentially decided in the primary.
Even if the race has three or more candidates, if one gets a simple majority of the votes, that candidate appears alone on the general election ballot.