March 6, 2011 in City

Spin Control: Careful what you wish for, primary election reformers

By The Spokesman-Review
 

So, Idahoans, a federal court has thrown out the primary you’ve used for decades. We in Washington feel your pain. Wondering what you can expect?

The short answer: More court action, plus confusion at the polls.

Longer answer: All of this is still subject to appeal because First Amendment cases are often taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, and attorneys love nothing better than to argue a First-er in front of the Supremes. It looks good on their résumés and they can regale their lawyerly lunch buddies with lines like “and then I told Clarence Thomas I think the Founders intended …”

It’s hard to say how the Supremes will come down on this. But let’s say they side with U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill, and your open primary becomes a thing of the past.

If you’re a voter or elected official who liked the open primary, kiss it goodbye. If you’re a party functionary who hated it, be aware you could wind up with something you hate even more.

That’s what happened in Washington when the political parties successfully challenged the old blanket primary under similar right-of-association arguments. Washingtonians spent a decade in which the primary system changed about every other year.

In Idaho, like in Washington, elected officials who like to get as many votes as possible in an election and don’t necessarily think there was anything wrong with the open primary will be in charge of fixing it.

We went from the blanket, where all the candidates were on one primary ballot and any voter could mark a candidate from any party for any office, to the “Pick a Party.” That was a system in which elections offices sent separate color-coded party ballots (including one nonparty ballot) to each voter, and we could only mark and mail back one party’s ballot. We hated it and changed it with an initiative.

Eventually we got the “Top Two,” which has all the candidates on one ballot again, and a voter can pick any candidate for any office. If that sounds like the blanket, it pretty much is, with one exception. Candidates don’t run as members of a party; instead, they merely say they “prefer” a particular party.

If you’re lucky enough to get such a system, you can look forward to candidates getting creative with party names. Prefers Lower Taxes, Happiness, Independent Democrat and Reluctantly GOP all were used last year. Someday a smart marketer’s going to convince a candidate to sign up with something like Prefers Pepsi over Coke.

Having sued and won, are the parties happy? Not hardly. They don’t like the top two and went to court again. They managed to delay it a few years, but eventually the courts sided with the voters. Recently a federal judge came up with another zinger: Because the primaries are not partisan, the parties can’t use them to elect their precinct committee officers.

The one partisan election Washington has left, the quadrennial presidential primary, is in danger of being canceled for being too little bang for the 10 million bucks it costs the state, leaving the parties without a vehicle to get their precinct officers elected for free.

So brace yourself, Idaho. Once the parties start messing with the primary system, there’s no telling where it will end.

Quick, what’s the Washington state song?

If you said “Louie Louie” or “Roll on Columbia,” you’re wrong. Those are the state’s unofficial rock song and official folk song, respectively.

The state song is “Washington My Home,” but basketball fan Kristopher Bannon, of Tacoma, has an initiative to change it to “Not in Our House” by Sir Mix-A-Lot. This is in honor – or perhaps in dishonor – of the Supersonics leaving Seattle.

The rap song was big during the Sonics’ 1992-’93 playoff drive. If the proposal gathers at least 241,153 valid signatures and gets a majority from voters in November (two substantial ifs) it would stay the state song until another NBA team finds its way to the state.

It’s one of the many brilliant ideas being proposed as initiatives so far.

Spin Control, a weekly political column by Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, reader comments and videos, including “Not in Our House,” at spokesman.com/spincontrol.


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