Local taxpayers shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Aug. 17 primary to help political parties elect their precinct committee officers.
The primary would have cost taxpayers in Spokane County only $42,314 if state law didn’t give political parties a free ride.
The Republican and Democratic parties would have owed $339,361 under the formula used for cities, fire districts, schools and other public agencies – which all have to pay for elections.
Precinct committee officers increase election costs “tremendously,” Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed said in Spokane recently.
A Republican, Reed is defending the state’s new top-two primary, which both major parties and the Libertarian Party are challenging in federal court – even though the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the concept in March 2008.
The parties argued in court that they are private organizations and government has no right to tell them how to choose their nominees.
“If they’re private associations, what are taxpayers doing paying for precinct committee officer elections?” Reed asked.
As Democratic Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton put it, “We don’t hold elections for the American Cancer Society.”
But almost 90 percent of the approximately $381,600 cost of this year’s Spokane County primary was for precinct committee officers who have almost no governmental role.
Now that elections are conducted by mail, a PCO’s only public duty is to help nominate replacements when there is a midterm vacancy in a partisan office.
Including a half-dozen write-ins, aspiring PCOs outnumbered other candidates 400 to 72 in this year’s county primary. The situation would have been even more lopsided except that only 220 of the county’s 293 precincts had PCO candidates.
Republican precinct candidates dominated the county primary and accounted for $282,282 of its cost. Democratic PCO candidates accounted for $57,078.
The parties didn’t pay a penny, though, so the Spokane County Library District had to cough up almost $36,000 extra to help cover their share. Fire District 9, the town of Rockford and the county government also chipped in.
Because the state government pays its share only in odd-numbered years, the county had to pay that, too.
Taxpayers didn’t get a lot of drama for their dollar in precinct committee contests. Among 400 PCO candidates, only 150 had an opponent.
Still, state leaders of both parties say PCO elections are an important part of America’s electoral fabric.
The parties provide useful labels that help voters make their decisions, according to Dwight Pelz, the state Democratic Party chairman, and his Republican counterpart, Luke Esser.
“I think it’s unfortunate that, in our relentless quest to cut taxes and government, we’re finally getting to the point of wondering whether we can afford elections in this state,” Pelz said. “It’s just another canary in the coal mine.”
Esser saw “a real value in having the kind of PCO election that allows our brave men and women overseas to participate in the process.” He said Republicans probably would use a caucus system if governments quit paying for precinct committee officer elections.
“Everybody knows the parties don’t have that kind of money,” Esser said.
Already, Dalton said, many PCOs in both parties are appointed by party officials.
Across the state, there were 2,247 PCO candidates in the August primary and 851 candidates for public office.
An analysis of a state computer lockup that delayed primary results for two hours on election night concluded that PCO elections likely were a factor. State officials have spent about $130,000 in federal money to beef up the secretary of state’s computer system.
Making the parties pay their portion of election costs “would be the fair thing,” but that is “unrealistic,” Reed said.
Dalton agreed that charging political parties the same rate as government agencies “would never fly.” However, she said, there are other ways to slice the pie.
Currently, each governmental agency with items on a ballot pays a share based on the number of registered voters in the agency’s territory.
If there were three agencies with 50, 30 and 20 registered voters, they would pay 50 percent, 30 percent and 20 percent of the total cost. Each also would pay a $50 fee for each district in which it places an item on the ballot, plus a 15 percent surcharge for indirect costs such as utilities and computer services.
In Spokane and most other counties, agencies with more than one item on the ballot are charged extra for the additional items. The cost for each extra item is a share equivalent to 20 percent of the registered voters in the district.
But, Dalton suggested, the charge for additional candidates might be eliminated for political parties. Then each party would pay a share based on the number of registered voters in precincts with the party’s PCO candidates on the ballot. Write-ins wouldn’t count.
Under that scenario, Republicans would have paid $46,899 in this year’s primary; Democrats, $21,446.
Or, Dalton said, PCO elections might be treated as a single countywide race regardless of the number of candidates or affected precincts. Then political parties would pay equal amounts – $52,706 in this year’s primary.
Pelz said the state Democratic Party would oppose any effort to eliminate precinct committee officer elections or force the parties to pay for them.
Esser said Republicans couldn’t afford even the most generous of the possibilities Dalton outlined.
“We aren’t given the coercive taxing authority like all those other jurisdictions,” Esser said.
Pelz and Esser were more receptive to Reed’s proposed solution: Change PCO terms from two to four years and elect them during the presidential primary.
Pelz said his party has taken no position on that but recognizes “that is a possible development in our state.”
Esser said Republicans are “willing to look.”
Dalton likes Reed’s idea because dealing with PCO elections adds “a huge amount of complexity” to a primary.