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Washington voters have complex route to choosing presidential candidates

Several factors usually keep Washington from playing a major role in selecting the presidential nominees, and this year may be no different.

Unless the races go late into the spring, that is.

The first factor is the state’s complicated and spread-out process that includes both caucuses and a primary.

The second is a schedule that usually has the key events occurring after the two major parties’ nominees are decided. This year, though, the size of the Republican field might keep that nominating contest alive until the May 24 primary, which the Washington GOP will use to award its delegates. But large fields have thinned quickly in previous election cycles, so who will be standing by that election is anyone’s guess.

The third is the fact that Republicans and Democrats have very different processes, and different calendars, to award their delegates. So different that a voter who is undecided not just on the selection of a candidate but the choice of party could participate in both.

Here’s a rundown of what’s ahead in Washington for the picking of the presidential nominees:

Republicans

The Washington Republican Party has opted for an unprecedented hybrid system. It starts with precinct caucuses on Feb. 20, in which party activists will gather at selected locations around the state to discuss local, state and national issues and candidates.

Unlike previous years, each presidential candidate’s support at the precinct gatherings won’t be tabulated and reported, and no straw polls will be taken.

That doesn’t mean some caucus attendees won’t be advocating for one of the dozen or so Republican presidential hopefuls, said state party Chairman Susan Hutchison.

“Anybody can stand up and talk about their candidate,” she said.

Instead, caucusgoers will select people from their precinct to be delegates to the county convention in April, where a county Republican platform will be debated and delegates will be selected to the three-day state convention that starts May 19 in the Tri-Cities.

The state convention delegates will debate and approve a state platform, and choose 41 delegates awarded to Washington for the Republican national convention in Cleveland in July.

Washington Republicans will award those delegates based on the results of the May 24 presidential primary.

Usually the nominee is selected by then. But maybe not this year, with a crowded field and big primaries in California and New Jersey coming in June.

“I hope that it’s going to be a crucial time,” Hutchison said. “There’s a very good chance we will have two or more individuals who have made it to May.”

If that’s the case, Washington might draw visits from the remaining candidates in the week before the state convention and primary, she said.

For the first round of nominating votes at the national convention, presidential delegates from Washington will be divided proportionally among candidates who receive at least 20 percent of the primary vote. If there are two or more rounds of balloting – something that hasn’t happened since 1952 – delegates are free to vote for the candidate of their choice.

Democrats

On March 26, Democrats gather for their precinct caucuses, which, like the Republican meetings, are mostly in schools, auditoriums, community centers or other public buildings. Unlike the GOP sessions, Democrats will tally support for presidential candidates and award delegates to the legislative district caucuses and county conventions.

In 2008, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battling for the nomination, Democrats drew some 246,000 people to their precinct caucuses, said state Chairman Jaxon Ravens. In 2012, with Obama running unopposed for re-election, they drew about 40,000. This year is expected to fall somewhere in between.

“I’d be happy to see 50,000. I’d be ecstatic to see 100,000,” Ravens said. “If (Clinton and Bernie Sanders) are still both in the race, people are going to turn out.”

The number of delegates each precinct sends to the next level of meetings varies based on a formula and is divided proportionally among the candidates based on support. Those wanting to attend the national convention in Philadelphia in July have two routes: through the congressional district caucuses, where a total of 67 delegates will be selected, or through the state convention in Tacoma, where another 34 at-large delegates will be selected.

Like the Republicans, the delegates at the county and state Democratic conventions will spend time on platforms and resolutions.

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats will ignore the results of the primary, even though Democratic candidates will be on a primary ballot.

That’s because Democrats had to select their nomination process starting in 2014, and Ravens said the party feared the state might cancel the primary to save money, as it has in some previous years. So Washington Democrats chose to use caucuses.

Last year, Republicans wanted to move the date of the primary up to sometime in March, when more candidates were likely to be in the race, but Democrats blocked the move and it stayed on the date set in state law.

Hutchison accused Democrats of being undemocratic for ignoring the will of the people.

Ravens said Republicans should have voted to stick with caucuses, let the state cancel the primary and save the estimated $11.5 million it will cost.


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