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Thu., June 9, 2011

Editorial: No need to reinstate meaningless primary

This week’s parade of candidates to the Spokane County Auditor’s Office to file for ballot positions in the forthcoming primary election still seems a little rushed after so many years when the ritual could wait until July.

But that was when the primary was in September instead of August, and voters nominated Democrats to oppose Republicans rather than just the top two finishers, and most people voted in person instead of by mail.

Suffice it to say, the election structure has been in flux for the past few years, thanks to a wave of political maneuvering, lawsuits and budgetary constraints. For good or ill, traditions have taken a pounding.

Consider Washington state’s up-and-down experience with a presidential primary election – a political pageant that we did without for decades, that serves practically no real purpose and that has been suspended for the 2012 election cycle to save the state an estimated $10 million.

Secretary of State Sam Reed and Gov. Chris Gregoire reluctantly agreed during the Legislature’s prolonged gathering in Olympia this year that the presidential primary could be put on hold next year, so dire was the state’s need for every penny of savings that could be found.

But Reed was determined that the event will resume in 2016.

We have to wonder why.

Granted, the major political parties’ selection of their respective presidential candidates is the pep rally leading up to a political Super Bowl. It’s exciting. Everyone wants to participate. In some states, the outcome of the primary even determines whom delegates will support at the national nominating conventions.

Not in Washington. Here, Republicans apportion only half their delegate votes according to the primary election outcome and Democrats apportion none at all. The real process for picking nominees takes place in a series of neighborhood caucuses and county, district and state conventions.

Reed isn’t crazy about caucuses, and for excellent reasons. Because of factors such as work schedules and health limitations, not everyone can attend. People who value the secret ballot have to sacrifice their anonymity. Skilled political tacticians can hijack a caucus.

But a presidential primary election that parties can and do ignore is no improvement, certainly not at a cost to taxpayers of $10 million. Besides, it’s the public’s job to pick a president and the parties’ job to select partisan nominees.

When the state and the nation finally stagger free of the recessionary downturn, a $10 million line item every four years may not seem like a big deal. But the fresh memory of how far government spending can spin out of control should warn us against restoring even nominal burdens we can do without.

Unless and until the parties agree to make presidential primaries meaningful, Washington state has no reason to create a tradition that it never really had.

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