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Editorial: Top-two system needs some fine-tuning

Last week’s primary election gave us a view of Washington’s top-two system in action, producing some of the unfamiliar results that had been forecast.

In the Spokane County assessor’s race, for example, two Republicans will face off in the general election.

In the 5th Congressional District, the candidate opposing Republican congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers is a Democrat, Daryl Romeyn, but not the one favored by the party. Consequently, the party can’t use its campaign funds to help him.

Such oddities may become common under the new system. But across the state in Snohomish County, the top-two primary inspired an unorthodox campaign that exposed a possible inadequacy in current public disclosure law.

State Sen. Jean Berkey, a conservative/moderate Democrat from Everett, was out of favor with labor organizations. They faulted her budget-cutting votes in Olympia and backed rival Democrat Nick Harper. No Republican ran, but a Marysville man, Rod Rieger, ran merely as a conservative. With only an $800 war chest, he wasn’t given much chance, but now he’s narrowly leading incumbent Berkey for the second spot on the general election ballot.

This odd situation is credited to the unions’ hired consulting firm, which created a last-minute political action committee that targeted Republican precincts with mailings portraying Berkey as a wild-spending liberal and non-Republican Rieger as reflecting solid Republican values.

Public disclosure reports indicate the late mailing cost about $4,000, but don’t say who paid for it. That’s because the mailing was reported as an unpaid bill. If it’s never paid, the union group – if that’s who bankrolled it – would never have to answer for the two-faced ploy.

Such a strategy would be less likely if Democrats were picking one nominee and Republicans another in a traditional two-party election.

The incident demonstrates that political professionals are quicker than most of us to adapt to new circumstances, and if the top-two primary affords them a way to avoid the transparency of public disclosure they will find it.

Good-government advocates, in and out of the Legislature, must keep a keen eye on developments and make repairs as needed. Establishing firm dates for closing a campaign’s accounts and identifying the names and faces behind any arrearages would be one place to start.

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