With political experts proclaiming the Republican nomination over and Democratic leaders saying they don’t give a damn about the results, voters might reasonably wonder if Washington’s presidential primary is about to be called on account of irrelevance.
The simple answer is no. But the 2016 presidential primary won’t be anyone’s choice for a study in democracy in action.
On Friday, the Secretary of State’s office announced roughly one voter in eight had mailed back a ballot. Spokane County was a bit higher at 15 percent, so kudos on the home front, keep those envelopes coming in. Interestingly enough, GOP ballots in Spokane were only slightly ahead Democratic ones, 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent, despite the fact the former are merely relatively irrelevant while the latter are officially worthless.
With all GOP candidates save Donald Trump out of the race, the Washington results won’t put him over the top or block his path to the nomination. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are still dueling over the Democratic nomination, but Washington’s part of that fight was settled through caucuses so primary results might not even be worth bragging rights.
Tina Podlodowski, a Democratic running for secretary of state, said recently Republican incumbent Kim Wyman should cancel the presidential primary.
“It's time to put a halt to meaningless presidential primaries in Washington state,” Podlodowski said in a press release the morning after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had dropped out of the GOP race and just hours before Ohio Gov. John Kasich folded his tent.
While Podlodowski might have been voicing the frustration Washington voters had with yet another presidential primary of greatly diminished value, there was just one teeny little problem her demand:
Wyman has no authority to cancel the primary, and Podlodowski wouldn't, either, if she were in the office.
State statutes require Washington to hold a presidential primary the fourth Tuesday in May, and only the Legislature can suspend it. That has happened in the past to save money and lawmakers had the chance to do that again this year. Several bills were introduced to either cancel it or move it to an earlier date when the nominations would more likely be in doubt, but none got far.
Instead, the Legislature budgeted $11.5 million for the presidential primary in 2015, and Gov. Jay Inslee didn't knock that out with a line-item veto. Lawmakers didn't slice that money out in their supplemental budget, even though some might’ve liked to spend it elsewhere.
In the face of statutory requirements to hold a presidential primary and a legislative appropriation to pay for it, a secretary of state can't just be like Emily Litella and say “Never mind.”
The counties were in the midst of mass mailings on the very day Podlodowski issued her call. To stop the election at that point would mean some voters would get ballots and others wouldn't. Some would get the message that the primary was off and throw out their ballots. Others wouldn't, and mail them in.
Podlodowski's campaign spokeswoman, Maddie Foutch, was unable to cite a legal authority for a secretary of state to halt a primary, but insisted it was “irresponsible of Kim Wyman to let this go on.”
Wyman replied that Podlodowski's demand shows a limited understanding of the job. Voters could have had the primary in March if members of Podlodowski's party hadn't blocked efforts to move the date up, she added. Thus, the presidential primary was good for something: giving voters an issue in the secretary of state’s race.
With the benefit of hindsight, Podlodowski could argue on May 4 it was irresponsible to hold the primary on May 24. But just a day earlier the fourth week of May seemed, for once, an ideal date to determine the cage match for the GOP nomination, as Cruz and Kasich insisted the fight would be waged to the very floor of the national convention.
Turns out candidates who talk about winning the nomination on the convention floor are as viable as those who, in the face of stunningly bad poll numbers, insist the only poll that counts is on election day. In other words, they are so clearly toast the only question is how badly they are burned.
The prospect of a late May primary being highly relevant was doubtful last fall when Wyman and Republicans on the committee with the authority to change the date tried to move it to March. Democrats on the committee blocked that move.
If one must cast aspersions of irresponsibility, one should look to that decision. The Washington Democratic Party doesn’t use the presidential primary because of a long-standing preference for caucuses, something akin to a love of dial phones or eight-track tape players. Their refusal to change the date suggests the old joke about the disaffected Catholic’s response to the papal prohibition against contraception. “If you don’t play the game, you don’t make the rules.”
If the Legislature musters the courage to tweak the law for future primaries, it might consider requiring committee members who vote on changing the schedule be from a party that will use its results. Otherwise, they forfeit that vote.