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Fri., Jan. 14, 2011

Editorial: High time to accept top-two primaries

Washington voters are smart enough to understand the state’s qualifying – or “top-two” – primary election. A federal judge so ruled on Tuesday.

But leaders of the state’s major political parties don’t have as much faith in the electorate as U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour does, so they’re mulling what their next step should be. An appeal?

How about swallowing hard and accepting the common sense embodied in Coughenour’s ruling in a case filed more than five years ago, the latest litigation in a decades-long legal battle that’s lasted too long as it is.

What’s so confusing about the top-two primary? You look at the list of candidates on the ballot and vote for your favorite. The two candidates who get the most votes advance to the general election. So what if the two most popular candidates are attracted to the same party?

That, however, is what parties dislike most about the system. The candidates get to identify their preferred parties, if they have them, but the ballot doesn’t identify which of those candidates the parties prefer to carry their standards. Thus, for example, Democratic Party favorite Clyde Cordero finished fourth in last August’s six-candidate primary for the 5th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Of the four candidates who preferred the Democratic Party, Cordero finished third, and former television personality Daryl Romeyn wound up as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ opponent in November.

Such situations, party leaders complain, violate their First Amendment freedom of association. The Supreme Court previously said no, not unless the system confuses reasonable voters as to who’s who. Coughenour, noting the ballot’s unambiguous explanation that candidate preference doesn’t constitute party endorsement, decided that citizens get it.

“I-872 (the citizen-approved ballot measure that created the top-two primary) did not prevent the Democratic Party’s nominee from advancing to the general election; the voters did,” he wrote.

Besides, it’s not as though the traditional system never produced maverick candidates who deviated from the party line.

The parties have to accept responsibility for the present situation. Their own legal challenges successfully overturned a popular blanket primary, in which voters could effectively participate in more than one party’s primary. In its place they got the top-two system. And, as Coughenour pointed out with respect to its clarity, citizens wrote Initiative 872, and voters approved it – not just statewide but in every one of Washington’s 39 counties.

Washington’s Constitution mentions parties and partisan offices but contains no references to specific parties. Neither Democrats, nor Republicans, nor Libertarians – nor tea partiers – are guaranteed spots on any ballot. The top-two primary election puts such decisions in voters’ hands, where they belong.

Coughenour upheld that arrangement, and the parties ought to accept it.

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